Thursday, June 1, 2017
This week, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College. Weinstein tells the now familiar tale of irascible student protests (responding to his pleas for reasoned debate about race on campus). This portion of his piece is especially noteworthy as a general critique of the structure of the modern university and what it has wrought for today's students (emphasis mine):
[T]he protests resulted from a tension that has existed throughout the entire American academy for decades: The button-down empirical and deductive fields, including all the hard sciences, have lived side by side with “critical theory,” postmodernism and its perception-based relatives. Since the creation in 1960s and ’70s of novel, justice-oriented fields, these incompatible worldviews have repelled one another. The faculty from these opposing perspectives, like blue and red voters, rarely mix in any context where reality might have to be discussed. For decades, the uneasy separation held, with the factions enduring an unhappy marriage for the good of the (college) kids.
One could get discouraged as this news becomes the new normal at college and universities around the nation. So, in these final days of Easter, I wanted to pass along reasons for hope: new—and old—voices, offering not critique of the current climate so much as alternatives ripe for revitalization. (I well acknowledge that I spend much of my day alone in my home study, entirely free of university shenanigans or the pressures that come with tenure-seeking, etc. And, happily, the latter part of my days is spent with my children who are blessed to be receiving a first-rate classical education at St. Benedict's outside of Boston - where we were recently encouraged by George Weigel's remarks on these topics at our annual auction.)
In The Idea of the University, Cardinal Newman beautifully articulates the very purpose of such an institution, implicitly devastating the silo-ing of disciplines about which Weinstein insightfully casts much of the blame for today's woes:
It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal." A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.
In recent years, Bishop Barron has explored with characteristic intelligence and aplomb just how the intelligibility that grounds all reality makes the search for knowledge and truth even possible, across all disciplines. I'd especially recommend this 2011 lecture at the University of St. Michaels, but all of his lectures are top-shelf.
The Lumen Christi Institute has recently made available online a lecture at the University of Chicago by Professor Jared Ortiz. It is an admirably clear exploration of classical liberal education, especially as he compares the traditional approach with the more recent Great Books revival. Ortiz recounts his own transformation at Chicago under the tutelage of Leon and Amy Kass (who “trained his loves”), as well as Paul Griffiths. Ortiz, like Bishop Barron, points to Christ the Logos as the principal of all intelligibility, and thus suggests, in conclusion, that the liturgy ought to properly be at the 'heart' of the 'core' curriculum.
Finally, I'm about half way through Senator Ben Sasse's book, The Vanishing American Adult. It's excellent - but what is especially encouraging to me is that this learned statesman, en route (one hopes) to a presidential bid in coming years, would pen a book devoted entirely to the rearing and education of young children. A topic once considered essential by the most influential thinkers in history (Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau come immediately to mind) was strangely downgraded more recently. Sasse, a Yale-trained historian, well understands that the intellectual and moral formation of the young is the most crucial work of a civilization that hopes to persist (and thrive!). Here’s a taste of the book in an interview with Bill Kristol. But read the book – and be heartened that a man concerned about these important matters sits in the upper chamber of Congress. I am.