You probably think North Korea is thousands of miles away. Actually, it is as close as your nearest university. By and large most of our universities and colleges have become little North Koreas—sealed enclaves of repressive ideology, stifled speech, and rigid thought control. Students enthuse to this jailed status through daily dosages of Huxleyan soma in the form of Dionysian license with a sprinkling of MeToo puritanism. Victor Hugo once cannily remarked, “A man can either make his soul a sanctuary or a sewer.” That can also be said of our universities and colleges. Once-proud sanctuaries of truth have become sewers of agitprop fueling a chaotic makeover of America. This baneful circumstance has reached such a nadir that even the hoi polloi recognize it. Lacerating scenes of looting, vandalism, and killing in our major cities these past few months bring the problem of higher education into stark relief. Half of the rioters are white children nursed on privilege and entitlement, raised in the cloistered islands of caste wealth. Whence these children’s ferocious antipathy toward America, indeed the very pillars of Western civilization? The evidence of decades leads directly to the American classroom. For more than a half-century a surreptitious and altogether committed penetration of the entire education system has been accomplished. Its reigning raison d’être has been anti-Western in every aspect: economic, philosophical, historical, literary, and artistic. It’s amazing that such a coup was effected with nary a whimper from ordinary Americans, as it was happily bankrolled by the very parents whose beloved beliefs it sought to plunder.
Only against the backdrop of burning cities, the desecration of cherished American monuments, and gratuitous violence has the country slightly awakened to its source in the rotted educational empire. Instances of this debasement could fill pages of old Manhattan telephone books. Just recently, California announced its mandate for K-12 students in a “model curriculum.” It aims to build “possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance.” Course outlines require “student political activities with approved topics on racism, LGBTQ rights, immigration rights, access to quality health care and income inequality.” There’s more. Students are assigned papers on U.S. events that “led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege.” Are you incredulous? Simply read the state of California’s Education Department web site. Even more shocking is the recent piece of news from, of all places, the terribly “woke” The Atlantic. John McWhorter reports “receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their careers, because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook.” He chillingly continues, “I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.” McWhorter then relates a typical episode in stomach-turning detail, “A professor who committed the sin of privileging the white male perspective in giving a lecture on the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, praised by Frederick Douglass, had to sit in a ‘listening circle’ in which his job was to remain silent while students explained how he hurt them.” The journalist concludes, “This is a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.” Such hair-raising accounts should be enough to rouse armed rebellion. Where is the outrage? Instead we have silence—a silence that should be deeply concerning.
In the middle of the fourth century, Saint Jerome famously remarked, “The world awoke and found itself Arian.” Similarly, America is slowly awakening and finding itself in the teeth of a Marxist/Maoist revolution. For decades its progress was furtive but now it crackles with boastful hubris. To America’s shock, our very primary and secondary schools, universities, colleges, and graduate schools have become the incubus for a New Bolshevism. Under this regime, children have become strangers to their parents and the nation’s true history. Salutes to the flag are replaced by raised fists of defiant insurrection. Yes, home schooling has become a desperate stop-gap measure, but it only educates 3.4 percent of the student population, which is hardly enough to stave off this national apocalypse. Yes, a handful of private colleges and universities have escaped the revolution’s long arm, but out of 5,300, a paltry 27 boast a traditional curriculum. Not much consolation.
Despite the chilling statistics and evidence of our eyes, the indispensable importance of higher education cannot be slighted. As the scholastics taught, abusus non tollit usum (the abuse of a thing does not prohibit its use). Man’s intellect only reaches its fulfillment in the systematic rigor of an educational system. From Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum to the great medieval universities, man has leapt to his greatness by being carefully “led out” of his darkness of ignorance (cf. l. educere – to lead out) into the light of truth (cf. ascent out of Plato’s cave). Josef Pieper reminds us in Leisure: The Basis of Culture that the word for school is derived from the ancient Greek word, σχολή (skole), meaning leisure. Man’s only true rest arrives in the sedulous cultivation of the intellect. When crowned—as it was in the medieval universities—with the understanding that all knowledge is ultimately perfected in the knowledge of and union with God, education becomes revered, and is a culture’s most precious boast. In a marvel of providential design, Plato’s Academy was closed by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD, and in that very year Saint Benedict of Norcia founded his first Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino.
As Pieper further reminds us, the purpose of true education is “useless,” in the sense that the wondrous worlds of wisdom are not for anything; they exist only for themselves—like beauty. Chesterton was touching upon this when he wrote, “The youngest children ought to learn the oldest things.” That remark may seem peculiar, but it is the perfectly understandable truth that only the highest things should inform education’s studium. Education must be “useless” in that its purpose is not to teach men a living, but how to live. The whole purpose of a liberal education (l. libero – to free) is to release man from the base servility of opinion and false ideas to the liberty of truth. The estimable medieval trivium and quadrivium was simply the toolbox of a well-disciplined mind preparing to scale the heights of wisdom. When man discovers what he is and where he is supposed to be going (i.e., his proper end), he is ready to become a happy man and a profitable citizen. When universities collapse into trade schools, man degenerates into homo faber, and his majesty as homo sapiens withers. Budding intellects should be filled with the pure gold of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Saint Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, not the toxins of Critical Race Theory, Marxist analysis, and gender ideology.
Education is truly liberal when it looses man bondage to self and allows him to soar. It unfetters man so that he moves easily amongst his dreams. It swells man’s soul so that he can burst with aspiration and ordered commitment. Education is properly liberal precisely when it makes smugness an embarrassment and wonder a prize. It fires souls with the insatiable hunger for truth and armors its charges with the steeliness that makes them unafraid to walk wherever truth can be found. Education becomes illiberal when it impales itself on the strange idea that truth does not exist or chokes itself on the still stranger idea that truth is only what you can see. A truly liberal education does not ignore those strange ideas but carefully notes them, exactly because of their strangeness. It trains the soul to measure things not by itself, but by truth. Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she and her fellow Southern writers seemed to be obsessed with presenting such grotesque men and women in their literature. She replied, “Because we still know how to call something grotesque when we see it.” Illiberal education teaches men how not to see. Merely admitting strangeness nowadays is taboo, and calling strange things strange is felonious hate speech or, in a more pretentious construal, “false consciousness.” Ah, how Marx would dance!
A trenchant assessment of the current condition of higher education can nowhere be better found than in George Schuster. In an introduction to one of the editions of Newman’s Idea of a University, he wrote:
Newman foresaw, with remarkable prophetic realism, what the climate of culture would someday be—the climate to which Erich Heller has since given the label of “disinherited mind”—in which the springs of man’s spirit would go dry, so that the soul which nurtured him would produce, as it were, no fruit or flower but only weird, often exhilarating chemical concentrates of literature and art… Newman’s preview of these things … supplements the prophetic insights of the great Russian Christians Dostoevsky and Tolstoy… For the author of The Brothers Karamazov man’s adoration of himself, taking the place of the worship of God, would spawn a race of demons whose pride would fully reveal the potential cruelty of the intelligence. And it was the vision of the barbarian turned engineer which in the end drove a frightened Tolstoy into monastic seclusion. For Newman, on the other hand, the specter was that of the truncated inner life of the educated, product of the disuse of all the nobler muscles of the mind, unable any longer to give the masses an example suggesting better than the “holiday of resourceless ignorance.”
Occupation might be an unseemly reaction for a moral people. Then let us settle for a re-occupation based on truth, wisdom and received tradition. In 1983, then–Secretary of Education William Bennet’s office released the prescient white paper, A Nation at Risk, on the dire state of American education. Now, over thirty years later, a once merely impending risk has become a present nightmare. In another time, American heroism crushed the depraved totalitarianism of 1945 with Operation Overlord and the valor of Omaha Beach. Might it be time for another Operation Overlord of sorts? One thing is certain, armchair tsk-tsking will no longer do.
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