Education for Darkness

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Pity today’s college teachers, especially those at the rank of assistant professor. After years of graduate study, they were fortunate enough to find a college teaching job. Soon, however, they discovered that the subjects and courses they love to teach must be made “user-friendly.”

This means emphasis, primarily, upon getting good student evaluations. One usually receives such evaluations if he or she assigns very light and “engaging” (preferably funny, and certainly not intellectually challenging) readings, uses a great deal of audio-visual material and “social media,” seasons lectures with multiple jokes, and, naturally, gives very high grades. On this view, there are, of course, no failing students—only failing teachers.

But suppose Assistant Professor Jones is unwilling to play the role of academic charlatan. Suppose Assistant Professor Jones loves his discipline and his students so much that he wants them genuinely to learn and, further, that he recognizes that the students who do not sow will not reap. Consequently, he assigns substantial serious reading, dares to quiz the students, has demanding standards, holds the students to those standards, and—gasp!—fails the students who, well, fail.

What will become of Jones? First, his colleagues will shun him. Doesn’t Jones recognize that, unless he’s teaching at an opulent college, the place which pays his salary (and the salaries of his colleagues) may go out of business unless students are kept there (and never, well, hardly ever, flunked out)? That rascal Jones is taking the bread out of the mouths of his colleagues.

Grade inflation is a thing of the past. The “gentleman’s C” of yesteryear is long gone. The grade of A minus is tantamount to the C or D grade of two generations ago. The student who “earns” a B+ (a terribly low grade, after all) will complain bitterly that he or she has been grievously mistreated (and now may not get into law school, leading to a ruined life—all because of Jones).

I was once censured by a colleague in Vermont who instructed me that grading is fascist, an anachronistic power ploy by oppressors (that would be “teachers” in my antediluvian vocabulary) to dominate free-thinking students.  By the way, the best short readings I know about in connection to this are by Steven M. Cahn, The Eclipse of Excellence and Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia.

Some of the students will wage a vendetta against Jones. Jones’s student evaluations will be just plain awful. These unflattering, if not odious and manifestly unfair, critiques (often available to the world on-line) will, in turn, give the department leader and the dean ammunition for denying Jones promotion and tenure.

It won’t matter too much, though, for the number of students who enroll in Jones’s courses will be shrinking dramatically. Jones will be dismissed as an elitist with a very small group of student fanatics who take his courses.

Gresham’s Law of Economics holds that bad money drives out good. It has a parallel in academic life: incompetent, uncaring, and lazy professors who despise teaching students tend to drive out the devoted, disciplined, and energetic professors who love teaching students.

What does the bachelor of arts degree mean today? Does it signify many hundreds of hours of lucubration in which students pored over classic texts; wrote scores of critically reviewed papers; participated in dozens of lively and stimulating seminars, exploring the great and perennial ideas; enjoyed numerous “bull sessions” with friends, examining the point and purpose of life; attended many campus lectures; and visited art galleries and historical museums whenever feasible?

Imagine all this being done on a beautiful campus where reverence and piety are much more than punchlines for off-color jokes. And again, imagine that the faculty and staff at this institution actually understand two things: First, that contemporary college education must be a disinfectant for the intellectual and moral plague around us. Second, that an education which denies, denigrates, or disparages God is not just shallow but is, in fact, a moral abattoir.

What matters, I think, far more than what the student will study (excuse the old-fashioned notion that college is about studying serious subjects in a serious way) is where he or she will study. Parents who would never permit their children to consume poison will imprudently (the kindest adverb I can use here) pack off their sons and daughters to colleges which offer, in effect, toxic teaching, leading to the moral corruption of the young men and women for whom genuine education should be spiritually as well as academically inspiring.

When colleges re-open after the coronavirus closings, many college administrators will seize upon the recent experience to suggest even more internet teaching in the future. Why, they will ask, have so many faculty members? Why have so many small classes? Why have such concern for professor-student classroom interaction when the internet permits and encourages economies of such gargantuan scale, ludicrously lauded as “personal contact”?

Electronic “education” will become practically irresistible, and any Professor Jones who is so archaic as to express doubt about the brave new world of education by electrons will not long endure on campus. It was President James Garfield who once defined the good college as “Mark Hopkins [the great 19th century American educator] on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Log, not web.

I refer to “Gresham’s Law of Modern Education”—that morally an academically defective “education” drives out reverential and substantial learning. This signifies corruption in the higher learning, a corruption which has surely affected every aspect of life in our country. There will be no restoration of virtue until we educate for light, by which I mean, à la Plato, calling students (our future doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, mechanics. merchants, and even entertainers) out of the ethical darkness—the filth—which surrounds us and to which we have become accustomed.

The only hope of enlightenment we have is a handful of small Catholic colleges intent upon the preservation of the Faith during these times of barbarism and pervasive evil. Thus the adjuration of the Catechism, in which we read that “the education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (1783).

We are effectively “educating” today for darkness and not for light; we are not creating men and women of vision and virtue (for we no longer have any consensus at all about those desiderata); and, as Matthew tells us, “if your eyes are no good, your body will be in darkness. So if then the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be!” (Mt 6:23)

We pray and hope for a good and great society. But our “eyes are no good”: we no longer see truth and beauty and goodness. We disdain them, for we deny their Creator. Scripture is clear that repudiation of God has consequences which devastatingly ripple through our personal, political, and public lives. The heart of all education is the First Commandment. Get that wrong, and all else collapses into moral miasma.

We churn out thousands of graduates, however, who do not know that they do not know, whose knowledge is both deficient and defective, and whose learning cannot help them to differentiate between good and evil, between virtue and vice, or between what is sacred and what is profane. With leaders such as these—given to our society by an academic world now utterly desacralized—we are failing but think ourselves flourishing; we are wicked but think ourselves worthy; we are reprobate but think ourselves redeemed.

We are too stupefied by the Huxleyan soma of modern education to understand that we are again building the Tower of Babel, thinking of ourselves as brilliant architectural innovators.

It’s all right, though. Rumor has it that Professor Jones has been fired. Silly man! He actually believed that when we “think for ourselves” we should form our judgments by the best that has been thought and said, that conscience means both substantial information and wise formation; and that genuine education is about knowing and applying the permanent things which transcend the moment and the emotion. That moth-eaten Jones was never cut out for teaching, was he?

Image: Schoolmaster Hieronymus Jobs by Johann Peter Hasenclever

Deacon James H. Toner

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Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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