What Have We Learned from Universities?

The recent news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission of prelates to reevaluate a former Pontifical university in Peru has elicited a few sardonic remarks, and perhaps even some earnest hopes, that the Vatican might take a similarly incisive interest in the condition of certain Catholic institutions in the United States. As unlikely as that circumstance might be, I admit that the state of higher education in America, both Catholic and secular, has been lately on my mind.

My thoughts, interestingly enough, revolve around a few words spoken some weeks ago by a very good, honest, and holy missionary priest. This aged man, whose attention to heavenly things is palpable in his every word and posture in the celebration of the Mass, was addressing in his homily the virtue of wisdom, when he turned and said, quite distinctly: “Wisdom is not always—or even often—found in the universities!

It was a poignant remark, as true as it was striking. Who, having ever spent significant time in a modern university setting, could deny it? Perhaps it is an odd notion to see repeated in such a magazine as Crisis, where so many of the contributors are individuals affiliated with academia, and many indeed are renowned for the intensity of their scholarship. But to express such a sentiment is no exercise in anti-intellectualism. Those who have the deepest regard for the Truth—for real and abiding knowledge—will not hesitate to become the most trenchant critics of those places and minds where learning pretends to be, but is not.

The past weeks have seen a number of very useful articles published in these pages considering, among other things, the deplorable lack of ordered thinking in our nation’s public discourse, the peculiar rise of emotivism and sentimental tyranny as a method of resolving disputes, and the increasing disregard, at the highest levels, for the greatest literature and moral philosophy the world has ever known. Now, considering these rather severe deficiencies in the present abilities of the modern American citizenry, we are faced with the incontrovertible data that more men and women than ever before are attending, and have graduated from, our institutions of higher learning. According to information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, nearly 60 percent of mature Americans (aged 25 or older) have attended college, over 30 percent have attained bachelor’s degrees, and more than 11 percent have earned some advanced graduate credential.

Of these so many millions who have experienced our universities, it is right to ask: in what did their experiences consist? In this age of increasingly narrow specialization, many graduates have attained places within any multitude of desirable career tracks. Faced with the fierce realities of a bureaucratic and technocratic culture, they have gained the passwords to enter offices of employment, to begin in elite professions, to be licensed, and stamped, and approved by the gatekeepers of the way—though, so very often, it is only the way of the world. By every material and sociological measure, we are told, they have gained much. But have they learned?

Whatever expertise they have attained, there is one thing, I fear, that our schools have instilled in young men and women to an extraordinary extent—that is, the unabashed belief that each person is the center of his own universe. Perhaps I am mistaken—and I have no doubt that concentrated study could find a thousand causes and effects for those deficits of knowledge and wisdom that now pervade our academic establishments—but I am of the firm opinion that the most poisonous aspect of our current university culture is the unchecked, omnipresent and morbidly infectious power of intellectual pride. It is chiefly the product of an imbalance, of an education that eschews the type of firm spiritual development that is scarcely seen in present times, except at a few robust centers of Catholic learning. But—as I have argued elsewhere—some remnant of normalcy might still be found in unexpected places, even in those bruised and broken institutions where the memory of excellence, and of a better past, stubbornly persists.

Nonetheless, this peculiar feat of the university—of raising students in esteem without demanding from them a corresponding rise in the fullness of knowledge—should be weighed against every statistic that claims our nation to be more scholarly than ever before. For a school to fail a pupil in this way is to conspire in one of the worst frauds that can be perpetrated upon a soul. The taint of bloated pride drives to the root of a man’s reason, altering his judgment in nearly ever matter that comes before his contemplation. More and more skill in abstruse practical science does not counter it—by a hideous trick it feeds the furnace, or enables it, and brings the shallow pretense of intellectual advancement to mask the growth of a spiritual void which will not be undone. Of this particular defect in some supposedly learned men, John Henry Newman once lamented:

There is a want of naturalness, simplicity, and childlike teachableness in them…. They start off when you least expect it: they have reservations, make distinctions, take exceptions, indulge in refinements, in questions where there are really but two sides, a right and a wrong. Their religious feelings do not flow forth easily, at times when they ought to flow….

Hilaire Belloc, pondering the same phenomenon in The Path to Rome, was less gentle in rebuke:

And, by the way, would you like to know why universities suffer from this curse of nervous disease? Why the great personages stammer or have St. Vitus’ dance, or jabber at the lips, or hop in their walk, or have their heads screwed round…. Eh? I will tell you. It is the punishment of their intellectual pride, than which no sin is more offensive to the angels.

And what of St. Francis Xavier, who, in the midst of his saving missions in the East, wrote pleadingly to his Jesuit superiors in the year 1543:

It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out everywhere like a madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, “Ah! what a multitude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell!”

These are poignant words to be repeated at this time of year, when so many will be passing as graduates from academic halls. Is there anything to remember, especially as Catholics, along the way of such a precarious journey? Is there any proper remedy against the enticements of intellectual tyranny, and the endless falsity of pride?

Aside from our unflagging devotion to Christ and the Mass (which should require no explanation here), there are two pieces of advice that come immediately to mind, both further pointing to our need for great reservoirs of humility, patience, and faith. On the one hand, we do well to exercise intellectual modesty by accepting good teachers when, and if, they can be found. In many cases they are rare—I have been privileged to personally encounter a small handful of such individuals who deserve enormous respect, and will surely never be forgotten. But those masters whom we do not know or cannot find—or even those who have long since passed—we can always meet in the enduring memory of books.

Secondly, we must always recall the limits of our own knowledge, and admit that education or learning is not something exclusive to the universities. This lesson is much obscured in the contemporary world; but it is a plain fact that edification is something that can be done, and will be done, and must be done at any place and any time on the road of life. Of the authors I have just quoted above, not a single one of them was ever assigned in any course I ever studied, yet I consider their words quite indispensable. To meander prayerfully onwards from work to work, from master to master, is a great part of the process of learning—perhaps the best part—and it is a path available to anyone anywhere, regardless of age or ability. We remember that some of the wisest men in the history of world never stepped foot inside a university, nor even knew what a university was. The passing predilections of modernity do not controvert this startling reality. And if I have been lately blessed with the opportunities of formal study, all the more must I pause to remind myself that my education has only just begun.

Wisdom,” said that holy priest, “is not always—or even often—found in the universities!

Pray, Lord, at the end of days, let it be found in us.

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.

  • Siobhán

    “I fear, that our schools have instilled in young men and women to an extraordinary extent—that is, the unabashed belief that each person is the center of his own universe.”

    I believe St. Thomas Aquinas taught that wisdom increased in proportion to an increase of charity. We are in need of that “Copernican revolution” that Benedict XVI spoke about, to realise that we are not the centre of the universe and to grow in authentic love so that we might grow in wisdom. As you have astutely pointed out, this runs contrary to much of what third level education promotes today.

    Thank you for this article. I’m about to complete my degree but I feel that my real education is rooted in the teachings of the Church. If only there were more of an overlap!

  • MJ

    Thank you. You hit the “nail on the head” in your calm but piercing article. Less substantive and anecdotal…one of the online news organizations –[CNSNews.com] had a Video of the Week: Pop Quiz: Can You Name One U.S. Senator? .. .asking @ 10 students at American University in Wash.D.C…. to name a/any U.S. Senator currently serving…not one student could do so. One even lamented embarrassingly that he was a Political Science Major…another student came close…at least had a name…Barney Frank…but he is now a retired House Representative congressman from Massachusetts. Then the reporter asked the same students about entertainment and pop culture figures…they “batted 1000%”! What struck me was how gentlemanly and courteous these students were…smiling and bright and happy…and it saddened me that they were, as you noted, being defrauded in such and elementary educational way…to say nothing of the substantive fraud that your article addresses. As Father Barron often says…we can live either the Ego-Drama or the Theo-Drama. How tragic to be defrauded…and at the same time to be enslaved… in the “almighty Ego-Drama” of “Self”…and miss the “Theo-Drama”…of our life…the “Really big Show” …as TV host Ed Sullivan (R.I.P.) would say or “The Rest of the Story”…as Radio commentator Paul Harvey (R.I.P) always noted.

    • ForChristAlone

      And just think that, for so many of these graduating university students, their education cost someone perhaps $150,000 or more. That’s a heavy price to pay for not even being able to name one sitting Senator. Imagine buying a new Masserati and not being able to drive it from the dealership?

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  • hombre111

    That wisdom is not something encountered with frequency in universities is a repeated theme in Crisis. Nothing new, here. You even recycled an old picture I have seen several times before. All in all, universities have become advanced technical schools preparing students for their life’s employment. That is the reason most people go. They realize the truth: People with degrees earn more than people without degrees.

    Before WWII, only about 10% of students went to a university. The G.I. Bill, with its promise of a college education, was the greatest leap into the middle class in history, as millions of returning soldiers took advantage of the opportunity. Along with the formation of unions, this huge leap in education was behind much of the prosperity America enjoyed from the 50’s into the mid 70’s.

    As usual, capitalism pushes most people downward. And so the unions have vanished and its former members and their children are falling out of the middle class. And now young people, saddled by huge debt, wonder if a university degree is worth it, because their future is not as bright as it once was.

    Another interesting fact. Before WWII, only about 10% of students went to a university, usually for a liberal arts degree. Now, universities have become advanced technical schools. Only about 10% of students get explicitly focused liberal arts degrees. So, in one way, time stands still.

    • fredx2

      Well, that’s the liberal version of history, anyway.

    • ME

      When everyone goes to college and gets a degree, the degree becomes meaningless to help you stand out from others. Then it comes to the point that everyone has to have a bachelor’s degree to be considered for a job, and they only consider those with the master’s degree as the stand out candidates. So everyone tries to obtain the masters degree and so that makes the bachelors degree as the equivalent of a 2 year tech school degree. Basically it amounts to a certificate of completion. So just like anything else… if everyone has something, its not worth much. Supply and demand. But sure, if you wish to believe your story, go right ahead.

      • John200

        And a high percentage of the master’s degrees are as useful as a washcloth. Ditto many of the undergraduate degrees.

        On the national scale, millions are indoctrinated, not educated.

        We do not enjoy the fruits of a well educated society because that is not what we are.

        Don’t get me started on the state of K12 “education” these days, including the horribly weakened public school system.

        I won’t even jump on father hombre this time (maybe next time, you funny little man. I know you are out there).

      • hombre111

        What you are describing is part of the cold, calculating, merciless, “creative destruction” process whose other name is capitalism.

        • nasicacato


          In order for me to beleive that the GI Bill was responsible for the “greatest leap into the middle class in history” I would also have to beleive that without it, there would have been enormous amounts of unfilled postwar jobs, that simply couldn’t be done by those without a college education. Sorry, I just can’t buy that. Instead, what drove our postwar prosperity was the fact that most of the industrial world had been bombed into rubble. This and other factors (Marshall Plan, etc) ensured that American goods would be in high demand and ushered in an era of relative cooperation between labor and management. This era is now over, largely due to the fact that the world has now rebuilt it industrial base, and then some. (Although there has also been significant portions of “the cold, calculating, merciless” stuff that you describe above”)

          • hombre111

            Good point. I would say three factors came together: America as the last man standing in terms of industrial capacity, labor unions, which guaranteed rising wages to match rising productivity, and a suddenly well educated emerging middle class.

            I think of what then happened in my own red state. It passed a right to work law in the mid-seventies. The unions were broken and wages went flat, then down. Only one out of ten high school graduates graduate from college. Its manufacturing economy has been giving way to a service economy. We are now among the poorest states in the union, with a huge number of people trying to survive on minimum wage. In my county, one out of six does not know where his next meal is coming from. And, of course, it grows ever more conservative.

  • fredx2

    “I fear, that our schools have instilled in young men and women to an extraordinary extent—that is, the unabashed belief that each person is the center of his own universe.”

    I am afraid that not only do the universities do that, the high schools do as well. Children are constantly told that they must consider every question and come to a decision on their own – that no one really has a right to tell them what to do. This of course, pleases today’s children who are usually either an only child or a one-of-two children. This confirms the notion that they got from their helicopter mother – that they are the center of the universe.
    The only thing wrong with this approach is that a huge percentage either have bad judgment, or they never really study an issue, and so they either accept what TV tells them, or what they pick up watching movies etc since they do not read anymore.

    So they look to their conscience, which is feeble and half formed, and subject to the winds of fashion.

    This is a recipe for societal failure.

  • kmk

    I have a master’s degree and was an older student. I learned a thing or two from most of my professor’s and there were two stand-outs. The worst one was an ex-middle school counselor who did not know that he was expected to teach adults. He just wanted to be our friend, ouch! I was very nervous to share this with him but also furious enough over my huge waste of tuition.
    Schools aren’t what they used to be.

  • Tony

    James, you put me in mind of the few features about Princeton that attracted my affection. I hated the stench of money and the smugness of the assumption that Princetonians ought to rule — I am sorry, of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” But I wonder now, as I still struggle to sort out my violent feelings about the place, what was it about McCosh Hall, and Thomas Roche lecturing on Spenser, that I loved, beyond the sheer beauty of Spenser’s poetry? Why do I have pleasant memories of sitting in a small room in the same McCosh Hall, early in the morning, to go over Anglo Saxon grammatical paradigms with Harry Solo, a wonderful hobbit of a fellow whom Princeton saw fit not to tenure? Our rooms were not modern, and I liked that; and there was even a Spartan honesty in the spare bathrooms, with no doors for the stalls, only a plastic curtain.
    I liked that I could be walking on campus and stumble upon an old singing club crooning songs under one of the arches. There was still a trace, here and there, of a university once calmly dedicated to what we’d now call spiritual things, although it had already been nearly suffocated by ostentation, culling the “best” students from all over the country (and depleting local colleges as a result, to no net gain for anyone, I think), building enormous ugly “urban” structures like Fine Hall, ditching most of the old core requirements, cultivating a free and sadness-making sexual relativism under a veneer of respectability. And now when I return, even those traces seem to have been obliterated. That is by far not the last word on Princeton as it is now, I know; there are brazen weeds of sanity and beauty and wholesomeness poking through the macadam. But it may be the last word on the only Princeton I ever loved, the Princeton that was already doddering when I attended there — the Princeton that probably never would have accepted an Italian grandson of coal miners as a student. I can forgive it for an old fashioned bigotry of class; I can’t forgive it for the bigotry of money, “progress,” and the pursuit of raw power.

    • slainte

      “I can forgive it for an old fashioned bigotry of class; I can’t forgive it for the bigotry of money, “progress,” and the pursuit of raw power.”
      Princeton was, and perhaps still may be, the repository of all things Presbyterian, the group that planted itself within the north of Ireland and pulled rank and privilege over Irish Catholics for hundreds of years, enforcing the spirit and letter of the Penal Laws against an oppressed, native population of Irish Catholics…for the sole reason that they were Catholic.
      The loyal, progressive Presbyterian and one time President of Princeton Woodrow Wilson’s paternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S from County Tyrone, the same county that shortly thereafter birthed Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes and his younger sister Mary, who upon her death, was denied a Catholic burial by protestant authorities.
      Given this historical track record, should bigotry of class, money, “progress”, and the pursuit of raw power really elicit surprise? A Presbyterian heritage rooted in Calvinism, capitalism, a protestant work ethic, and an anti-Catholic ethos promoted the things of which you complain.
      Was there no Catholic University that was equally appealing to an Italian grandson of coal miners?

      • Tony

        I was quite ignorant of that heritage at that time. Princeton had been welcoming Catholics for about twenty years by then, and had lost almost all of its genuine Presbyterianism. My family and I really didn’t know anything about the state of higher education, or what it would be like to live on a college campus. As for Woodrow Wilson, my estimate of him has been plummeting like a stone, and hasn’t hit bottom yet.