Pedagogy or Plumbing…Must We Choose?

There can be no reason to commend a college or university to anyone if there is no connection between the life of the campus and the light of truth.

For all that it costs these days to fund what is laughingly called higher education, one would think most students would sooner become plumbers than go broke trying to get a college degree. A lot of non-plumbers would agree, especially when the toilet overflows and you can’t find one.

Not a few parents, too, since it often happens on their dime. Cui bono? as they used to say before Latin was deemed racist. Who benefits? Certainly not the families forced to pony up huge sums of money to subsidize the salaries of people who really haven’t a clue about higher education. Just ask them. “What is all this for? Why are you all here?”

Forgive my being flippant, but perhaps it’s because they’re not all there. In other words, if you had to draw a map of where honest and humane learning takes place, who would know where to look? As Al Capone used to say when asked about Canada, “I don’t even know what street it’s on!”

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On what street will we find an ideal education for our children? And once we’ve located the place, how on earth do we persuade the little darlings to show up? How to ensure an experience so enticing that even social media will not compete…that’s the challenge. If one cannot go on living for even the next five minutes without a reason for being, what reason is there for being educated?  

Take Harvard, for instance, our nation’s leading institution of higher learning, with an endowment larger than most third world countries. By almost any metric of educational performance, it’s the best in the business. But is that a place where real education happens, education rooted in truth and right reason? Maybe the question doesn’t even come up for most of us, Harvard being about the most difficult school in the country to get into. Unlike, say, the University of Chicago, which is nowhere nearly as difficult to get into but far more difficult to get out of, or so they say in Chicago. 

But suppose your wonderfully gifted child does manage to circumvent the admissions office at Harvard and finds himself suddenly a member of the freshman class. What then? How long before he’ll be asking, “Why am I here? Why is anyone here?”   

These are not idle questions. In fact, when raised to the level of existential urgency, they are the most important questions of all. “Why being rather than nothingness?” I mean, it’s perfectly plausible that nothing should be, never mind that things in fact are. So, why does anything exist? And where is it all going? You don’t have to be like that character in the Kafka story who woke up one morning to discover that he’d become a cockroach, or perhaps a centipede, to wonder about the meaning of life.

Or a trained metaphysician, for that matter, accustomed to wrestling with what William James famously called the darkest question in all philosophy. James, incidentally, was once a student himself at Harvard; indeed, he was just about the brightest bulb on campus. Soon after graduating, however, the poor fellow fell into a deep depression, only to emerge a few years later with an appointment from Harvard to teach Psychology, offering the first course ever in the discipline. Go figure, as they say.

What did William James think education was for? Did he pass along that particular sunburst to his students? Telling them, for instance, that we’re all lost in the cosmos, more or less consigned, “like dogs and cats in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversations, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all”? Is that the comparison we need to reach for? Dogs and cats?

Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit, who certainly knew what street Canada was on, once opined that when a dog or a cat had nothing to do, they’d take a nap. But not human beings, who will instead ask questions. What sort of questions? How about the ones that take us by the throat? Questions of ultimacy, for instance. What is the meaning of life, of my life, and how will four years at Harvard—or even Slippery Rock U.—help me to find out? Or am I no better than one of those “trousered apes,” of which C.S. Lewis speaks, condemned to a life of futility and despair?   

Because for Professor James, along with countless other equally esteemed teachers who came after, there is no truth. At least none which stands transcendent to all that we think we already know. A bit of a paradox, you might say, for someone to profess, however learnedly, at an institution that, from its very beginnings, had consecrated itself to truth. Veritas, after all, was then and is now Harvard’s official motto, emblematic of its whole reason for being. 

 “I am obliged to confess,” wrote William Buckley years ago, having witnessed not a few of its many travesties upon truth, “that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”  

Now that’s a pretty searing thing to say about a place widely reputed to be the principal citadel of higher education in the land. Categorical even in its judgment. Was it entirely fair and just to characterize Harvard in that way; indeed, to draw so invidious a comparison with the ordinary citizenry of the city of Boston, randomly selected from a phonebook?

It was perfectly fair. And not because Buckley wished to belittle “the brainpower” of its faculty, but because, as he put it, “I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university that refuses to accept any common premise.”

Meanwhile, just beyond the campus, things were very different. “In the deliberations of two thousand citizens of Boston,” he argued, however randomly selected, 

one would discern a respect for the laws of God, and for the wisdom of our ancestors which does not characterize the thought of Harvard professors—who, to the extent that they believe in God at all, tend to believe He made some terrible mistakes which they would undertake to rectify; and, when they are paying homage to the wisdom of our ancestors, tend to do so with a kind of condescension toward those whose accomplishments we long since surpassed.

Leaving aside the creeping dissolution over time of a once robust and solid citizenry, most of whom may never even have stepped inside Harvard Yard, unless driving delivery trucks, the critique of its faculty certainly holds true. Haven’t things, in fact, grown far worse since?

The point is, there can be no reason to commend a college or university to anyone, not even high school football stars promised a four-year free ride, if there is no connection between the life of the campus and the light of truth, the source of whose luminosity is finally God, and the order of reason He gave us to aid in getting back to Him.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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