In “That perfection of the Intellect,” wrote the lucid John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University,
and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.
Each of the five qualities of mind that Newman describes is almost something that God may grant to the most blessed of the saints in their lives on earth: the foresight of Isaiah, the insight of John Vianney into a sinner’s heart, the boundlessly patient charity of Mother Teresa, the solid equanimity of Thomas Aquinas, and the rapt gaze of Bernard of Clairvaux. Perhaps we may say that just as reason arrives at truths that are preambles to faith, so does the university dwell in the precincts of the Church. Newman had to distinguish a liberal and Catholic education from training in a skill, defending it from the utilitarian and secular impulses of industrial England. Still, he could take for granted that his readers would acknowledge the goodness of the ideal he was drawing, though they might not feel drawn to attain it in their own persons. We do, after all, need engineers, architects, and inventors.
One thing united the philological and theological dons of Oxford with the chemists of Manchester: a matter-of-course commitment to truth, insofar as they could discover it, cherish it, or deepen their gaze into its beauty. In that quest, no man’s feelings were of any consequence. Opponents may have delivered body blows to one another in the halls of debate or in the pubs afterward, but everyone would have scorned the idea that the possibility of hurt feelings might dictate what a man might say or how he might express it. What Newman calls “littleness and prejudice” would be scouted not by accusation but by intellectual dismantling. Truth loomed above them like a clear night sky powdered with stars. To that sky they might turn and forge those precious intellectual friendships that do not fail, because the ground of the union does not alter with the passage of years, much less with the rise and fall of the stock market or of a political party.
Well, we are far from the Mount of Contemplation. Modern man, afflicted with a variety of itches, sees no use in poetry and the rest of the liberal arts, unless they can teach him marketable skills such as writing a half-sensible memorandum. Hence the study of literature, with its rich content steeped in history, has given way to “communications,” a subject unmoored from both history and culture. Defenders of the liberal arts themselves, having forgotten the divine origin and end of the pursuit of wisdom, appeal not to freedom but to compulsion: at first the compulsions of the workplace, and now the compulsions of partisan advocacy, or of the self-fashioning and self-presentation of identity politics.
Newman defended the reading of Homer while his utilitarian opponents were building railroads and ships. We now have to defend the reading of Homer while our opponents are busy reducing cultural castles, town halls, and cathedrals to rubble, and producing—at great expense—millions of graduates whose knowledge of the arts, history, literature, philosophy, and theology is paltry at best and morbid at worst. These are people who lack the practical and necessary arts of the farmer and who have traded his honest and natural ignorance for an ignorance that is mendacious, man-made, and reactive.
“Teaching is a political act,” said a former nun who used to teach at my school, Providence College. She had lost her faith along with her habit, and so what was left to her if not politics? Back then, she sounded like a chic radical uttering an empty slogan. Her dictum could now serve as the motto for quite a few of our departments and programs and many more in colleges across the country. Though perhaps it would sound too cautious, at that. Not only, in the minds of many professors, is teaching an act with political ramifications; without the political, their teaching has no raison d’etre. Even the political then loses its special but subordinate character. The political becomes a cloak in human form, draped over emptiness.
The builder of railroads has a clear enough idea of the utility whereby he judges the value of his education; it is made manifest in rails that do not warp and axles that do not crack. He is still bound to a salutary though severely constricted truth. The political player—the man who falls in adoration before the cloaked vacuity of politics as the summum bonum—can have no such clear idea, because man will always frustrate anyone who demands perfection on earth, or even reliable prosperity and peace. The builder of railroads, when a gear turns up worn or toothless, alters the design of the gear or seeks a more durable alloy. The political player, when he meets with inevitable disappointments and reversals, turns in anger against his opponents, who must be wicked, or against the very mankind whom he purports to raise up.
The builder of railroads is interested in railroads; the academic politician is interested in victory. He has the moral code of Machiavelli, but, because he is too impatient to submit to the instruction of history, he has not the old master’s shrewd sense of human limitations and contradictions. He makes the worst of rulers: he is neither a lover of truth, nor a practical man of the world, nor an habitual examiner of his all-too-human and persistent failings.
If a young person comes to believe that education is to be valued as preparation for political action—if his English teachers choose novels not for their beauty and their insight into the human condition, but for their usefulness in advancing a political cause; if his history teachers encourage not that forbearance that tends to forgive the faults of those who have come before us or who lived under conditions whereof we have no experience, but rather an easy and self-confident judgment of their moral darkness because they were not like us in all things; if his art teachers foster contempt for the patient and heart-breaking quest for precision, and substitute for it indulgence in what is supposedly “edgy” but is merely tiresome and politically tendentious—then I fear that he will be, strictly speaking, ineducable, a monolith of manufactured stolidity.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you are speaking to a young person about the study of a wide diversity of cultures spanning several continents and four thousand years, such as we visit in our Development of Western Civilization program. The student stuns you by saying that he is not interested in the past, because he does not feel that it pertains to him directly. The only sense I can make of such summary dismissal is that, for him, the study is either not of immediate political use, or it does not reflect his construction of self.
Or suppose that you are speaking to another young person about a minority culture from southwestern Asia. The culture is on life support, with a rapidly dying language and a concomitant loss of memory. You say that you fear for that culture and others like it. But the young person, whose watchword is diversity, is complaisant about the death of that one, saying that it is the way of the world, that things change, and so forth. It doesn’t matter. The plight of that old language and way of life elicits no sympathy. It cannot be cashed in at the political exchange.
You are discussing with another student Augustine’s tribute to his mother, Monica. It may be the first literary tribute to an ordinary woman—not a queen, not an object of erotic desire—in the history of the world. The student is upset. She has been taught that the lot of women from time immemorial was simply and unrelievedly oppressive, and she is disappointed to find something that does not fit the political template.
You are challenging still another student to consider whether culture, the thing itself, is withering worldwide, and being replaced by something new in the history of man, something homogeneous and amnesiac and playing into the hands of “global” elites. Here, you think, is an opportunity to crack open the door … but no, the consideration of culture is too deeply human a thing, transcending political action, bringing you into conversation with people who walked the earth long ago, and beckoning a glance toward the heavens. Nothing must be allowed to distract from the world’s elections.
A student tells you that he is weary of learning about American culture in school. You say that you do not actually believe that his teachers have imparted much of that culture to him, or of what used to be a culture. You are thinking of the seaside observations of Winslow Homer and the plaintive love songs of Stephen Foster and the startling progressions of John Coltrane. You are thinking of Pickett and his men making their desperate charge at Gettysburg. You hear the plain and honest blank verse rhythms of Robert Frost: “I can’t think Si ever hurt anyone,” says the farmer of the hired man who has come back like a stray dog and who has, unbeknownst to him, just breathed his last. You are thinking of Protestants singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in four-part harmony; of John Greenleaf Whittier whistling along a country walk, and George Washington Carver patiently grinding peanut skins in a pestle. Henry Adams, John Ford, Herman Melville, Billy Sunday, Billie Holliday—how much of what is quintessentially American has he really encountered? But before you can ask a question probing more deeply into culture, he rolls his eyes and shuts the conversation down. Such is the certainty that the correct political position confers.
A politicized education is illiberal by its own inner compulsions. It is a dreadful thing to visit upon young people. We see its effects all across the country. What does it produce if it is allowed to progress to its consummation? Allow me to revise the words of Cardinal Newman:
It stumbles and is almost blind in its ignorance of history; it is almost heart-frozen from its refusal to acknowledge human nature; it has almost a demonic hatred in its reductive dismissal of great works and its swiftness to condemn what falls afoul of its political projects; it has almost the restlessness of infidelity, and yet is surprised by the failures of its demagogues; it has almost the hideousness and chaos of hell itself, so inextricably coupled it is with the mire and passions of the passing day.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared January 9, 2017 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above, Professor Melissa Click of the University of Missouri Department of Communications demands that a student journalist leave a “safe space” established by student protesters in November 2015.