Sunday, January 28, 2007

Choosing the Right College

Yesterday I was a speaker at an I.S.I. event aimed at informing parents and prospective students how to evaluate college choices in more substantive ways that go beyond considering campus social life, dining options and layout of the dormitories. Over 100 people were in attendance, and all appeared to be keenly attentive to what was being said. I found it very encouraging that so many parents turned out so early on a Saturday morning to get the low-down, and this gives me hope that things will change, if slowly, on college campuses. Administrators, so keenly conscious of education as a market-driven commodity, will be forced to adjust to parent and student demands that changes be made on college campuses. It may spell the end of a time in which no questions are asked about what goes on after the tuition check is written.

The speakers included John Zmirak (whom I met for the first time, and I hope not the last), Mark Henrie, and myself. Some of my comments are here:

“Finding Value in a Higher Education”


Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University


I teach at a religiously-affiliated University whose stated goal is to provide a liberal arts education to its undergraduates. It is an old and storied University, founded in 1789 – the same year as the ratification of the American constitution – and has ever external, and many internal, appearances of carrying on the tradition of excellence in education. The question which needs to be asked – and asked of any similar institution of higher education - is whether the appearance matches the reality.

If you take the campus tour, you will be told that there is a core curriculum, one that requires our students to take courses across the curriculum with special emphasis on theology and history. You will be told that the education of a Georgetown undergraduate aims at “cura personalis,” education of the whole person in keeping with the Jesuit and Catholic identity of the University. You will be told that Georgetown retains its commitment to undergraduate education, including extensive interaction between students and faculty, and ample opportunity for leisured intellectual interchange. The religious “identity” of Georgetown will be stressed, perhaps the great tradition of Jesuit classical learning. You will be told that Georgetown retains its commitments to age-old traditions that link the experiences of past generations to its current students.

You will be told these and many other attractive sounding things, as one ambles through a lovely campus dotted with impressive looking gothic buildings, a bit of ivy here and there, lawns that look as if they invite small groups of students lying on blankets who will discuss Plato, Aquinas, and Shakespeare and you might even spot the occasional Jesuit priest laden under a pile of books. The student guides will point out places on campus where George Washington delivered a speech, the dormitories where Antonin Scalia or Bill Clinton lived when they were students, or where a Cardinal or even Pope trod. I’ve walked behind more than a few of these student tours, and inevitably find myself quite attracted to the institution they are describing.

And then, I shake my head, come to my senses and WISH I worked and taught at that university. For, everything they say is formally true but substantively falls short of being deeply and profoundly true. Georgetown is a bit like that old story about my father’s old axe – the one that eventually needed to have its original handle replaced, and then its axe-head, but otherwise, in every other respect, is still my father’s old axe. It is, and it isn’t, the Georgetown that continues to exist on the same campus and in the same buildings that have existed since 1789.

The situation is not hopeless, but more than ever students and parents alike must approach a University education with care, foresight, and even some planning – now, not only with a view of successfully completing assignments and achieving high test scores, but undertaking to craft a curriculum by which students will become truly liberally educated. There is a profound problem here we must acknowledge: students are now thrust into a situation of needing to know what constitutes a liberal education, the very knowledge that a solid liberal education is supposed to impart. In effect, those students most in need of a classical liberal education will likely never received one, not knowing what it is they should be seeking in the first instance, whereas those students who enter the University with well-formed characters and an understanding of what constitutes a liberal education in substantial ways are already well equipped. This is a consequence of the massive repudiation of responsibility by contemporary faculty and administrators. But, the fact that you are here today attests to an awareness of the need to go beyond reliance of what you are told by today’s Universities leaders, and from this independence of thought a kind of renaissance within Higher education might be born.

As bad as the situation is at many of today’s most elite college campuses, there are almost always a significant or even adequate number of bright spots on even the most politically correct campuses. Just as the gothic towers remain as kind of architectural testaments to what Universities once were, so on most campuses there are vestiges of those who understand their vocation to provide a classical liberal education. In a sense, it’s necessary to see that every University and college is effectively, in point of fact, two Universities or two colleges. One is the predominant form – those faculty and administrators who seek to effectuate an education in “critical thinking,” whose fundamental loyalties lie not in educating undergraduates or a care of the form or end toward which such an education is directed, but rather their own professional standing, a standing that is achieved in particular through the now dominant reward system of arcane and jargon-ridden publication and hyper-specialization – “academics” in its most pejorative form. The other “University” or college is almost always miniscule, indeed, oftimes almost undetectable given the predominance of this first form of modern University. Much less evident than the gothic-style buildings, this “other college” is a kind of residue of the older form of University education. Rather than oriented outward, toward professional rewards and disciplinary recognition, the focus is inward, in particular toward the education of undergraduates.

How did these two Universities come about, inhabiting the same space if fundamentally opposite and even hostile – how, in effect, was the older University superseded and nearly annihilated by this new and very different form, almost a kind of colonization or even infestation that has corroded from within? The “older college” can trace its roots back to its origins as Medieval religious institutions (hence, we are still called “professor," a vestige of a time when it was our faith that we fundamentally professed) - as well as to the ancient academies. Hence, among other things, it was expected that students who studied under the direction of this curriculum would have familiarity with the classical languages, Greek and Latin, so that they could read the constitutive texts in the Western tradition, the classics of Greece and Rome and the great theological treatises of the Judeo-Christian tradition. These texts formed the “core” of a liberal education, which aimed at the transmission of knowledge which the greatest minds had painstakingly originated, elaborated upon, and preserved. Education was understood to be the transmission of one’s own tradition, the preservation of knowledge and understanding. Its campus center was the library, the very locus of the preservation of knowledge, and the book its mode of transmission, an object of reverence and even of awe (so often a book is pictured in the great university’s Seals). Its main subjects were classical literature, rhetoric, theology, history and philosophy, as well as mathematics and natural sciences. It was well understood how these subjects fit together in the effort to cultivate good character. Even where some specialization existed, faculty saw their part of education as aimed toward a greater whole, the flourishing of soul within each student. Rather than aimed at “critical thinking,” such an education was infused with a kind of reverence and piety, of gratitude and respect.

Most importantly, such a classical education was oriented toward a certain end – the formation and cultivation of the virtuous character. That is, it had an END to which it was oriented, an end which was determined by the human creature as that tradition had come to understand it, a creature endowed with a certain nature. That nature was both noble and prone to failings – in the Greek, to vice and “hubris,” for the Christians, marked by original sin and prone to sin. Liberal education was understood not to “liberate” us from that nature, but, by properly instilling an understanding of human nature, of teaching students about self-governance and adherence to the Laws of Nature and God. By properly understanding the created order of which humankind was a part, liberty as self-rule was the goal and aim. While we laugh sometimes at the old-fashioned notion of “the gentleman’s C,” what was most important about that too-familiar saying is not that C’s were more common, but that education had something to do with the cultivation of gentlemen and gentlewomen.

The modern University was born with the birth of modern philosophy and the overthrowing of classical philosophy and traditional Christianity. At the heart of this sea change was the new and different belief in human freedom – now liberty as understood as the overcoming of those limiting aspects of nature, including human nature. The aim and goal of education was the perfectibility of humans, and hence, the overcoming of any given “nature.” Its animating spirit was the belief that nature could become subject to human dominion and mastery – including human nature. Progress, and not tradition, was its watchword. The laboratory is its representative location on campus (characteristically, John Dewey – the great American articulator of this new form of learning – began the “Lab School” in Chicago, and replaced a curriculum based upon books with “experiential learning.”). The Universities became places that sought to create new knowledge, not to preserve and transmit old knowledge. As such, the rewards for faculty became research and publication of original articles and books, not transmitting a heritage to new and subsequent generations. Indeed, the old teachings became suspect. One could not teach “the great books” as if they had something to teach. The teacher had to understand herself as superior to the old, dead, white men who wrote them, and thereby, rather than acknowledging a debt, rather assert her superiority by finding its flaws and failings. The imperative to prove that progress could occur in the world of ideas meant that all that was old and traditional had to be overthrown. Core curricula were increasingly seen as obstacles to the new learning, and were strenuously overthrown on campuses around the country. As a parade of protesters at Stanford University shouted in the 1980s, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go…”

Today’s Universities combine these two institutions, although the latter dominates because its philosophy governs, and accordingly it seeks, attracts, and rewards a faculty which demonstrates fealty to its worldview. The older form of the university persists in corners and tucked away spaces, and must be actively sought.

Most often this “alternative college” takes the form of somewhat older faculty members who themselves had the benefit of receiving a liberal education and went through graduate training both before the skewing of academic rewards away from undergraduate education and before the dominion of political correctness in the modern academy. That is, they were taught, and in turn teach, under the now suspect belief that great books have something to impart and something permanent to teach, and that a liberal education is properly directed toward the end of cultivating excellence of character and the virtuous soul. These faculty most often are classical “liberals” – often lifelong Democrats whose desire not to be associated with the narrow-minded conservatism that once supported virulent racism acceded to the transformation of the University to the point at which they are now regarded by their progeny as hopelessly recidivist. Some have become fervent conservatives (these were the original neo-conservatives), and many others are simply befuddled and confused how they came to be seen as the enemy. But, as a rule, they are great teachers and care deeply about undergraduate education. These faculty, sadly, are literally dying out. But, they can still be found on most campuses, and finding them has now been made much easier through such publications as ISI’s guide “Choosing the Right College.”

Finding this “alternative college” is of the utmost importance for a student who seeks a classically liberal education. Without finding these faculty, it does not matter how much a University touts its commitment to classical liberal education, its commitment to teaching, its embrace of its religious traditions, its core curriculum – all of those claims are simply undermined and effectively defeated by the overwhelming presence of faculty and administrators who have no regard, and indeed who harbor active hostility, toward such residues. The most obvious example of this is the meaningless of the contemporary core curriculum absent appropriate faculty who embrace its overarching reason for existence. In most cases – and Georgetown is no exception – the fundamental reason for the existence of a core curriculum has been lost in the fog of time, and faculty willy-nilly create courses that fulfill the core requirement without any thought of how they are supposed to contribute toward the end of a liberal education. Most often, predictably, faculty understand their core courses to teach ‘critical thinking,’ not to be a source of conveyance of knowledge about the deepest roots of our own tradition. The core – once intended to transmit accumulated wisdom – is now most often employed to inculcate mistrust of the past, and to encourage “free thinking” unmoored from any deeper understanding of where such free thought is supposed to lead.

So, let me conclude by trying to provide some concrete answers to my stated assignment – how to find value in higher education today. As I’ve stressed, one has to begin with a deep mistrust of the sales pitch of today’s colleges and universities. You have to be prepared to ask questions, and to pose them to people who will not hesitate to tell you the truth. This means, as you make campus visits, take some time away from the student-led tours and seek out the counsel of one or several faculty who, to the best of your ability, you can identify as committed to a classical liberal education. Again, “Choosing the Right College” can be an invaluable aid, since it actually “names names.” Try to arrange a brief meeting with one or several of these faculty and ask as many questions as you can about the institution – its intellectual life, campus life, faculty- student interaction, the nature of the core curriculum and especially for the names of other faculty with whom students ought to seek out.

Second, encourage students to get as much out of the core curriculum – what of it there is – as they can. This means understanding its purpose and aim, whether or not administrators or faculty understand it anymore. As such, students need to overcome the tendency of seeing such requirements as onerous duties that need to be checked off, but rather embrace them as the foundation that will allow the full flourishing of their educational experience. This means that they have to go beyond just signing up for course titles that fulfill the formal requirement, but undertake some research to discover whether some, and which, of the required courses are being taught by faculty who are devoted to classical liberal education. It may not even be their favorite course topic or subject, but that in fact matters less than the faculty member who teaches it. A great teacher can make any topic soar and inspire achievement from devoted students, whereas a great subject can be slaughtered and gutted by a professor who wants to be anywhere else but in an introductory course. Choose your classes wisely. In its crassest terms, each class at a typical elite university works out to costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 a course. Don’t toss that investment, and the even more important investment of limited time, down the drain.

Third, students should actively seek to cultivate relationships and even friendships with faculty outside of the classroom. Make it a point to get to know at least one of your professors every semester. Make that your job each semester (doing well in classes is a given). Go to office hours; invite the professor to dinner at the dining hall; have a coffee, or where legal, a beer together. The best teaching goes on outside of the classroom (I can attest that I learned most of what I know in academia in the office of a beloved professor with fellow students over cups of bourbon). Understand that these relationships are good in themselves and good for other ends as well. These relationships are the store from which eventual references and letters of recommendation can and will be drawn. In an age of grade inflation, every student applies to grad. school or law school with 3.9+ grade point averages. What distinguishes the best students now, more than ever, is the personal and knowledgeable testimony of a member of the faculty who actually knows and cares for the student. Get to know faculty. The best ones crave such bonds – in the end, that’s why they entered the professoriate.

Lastly, to the extent you are able, try to impart some understanding of the value of an education – not merely as prepatory to a career or professional school, but as providing the capstone of the cultivation of character and of the soul. Education at its best refines and elevates, directs our vision the very highest things even as it remind us of our propensity to fall toward the low. It encourages aspiration while discouraging degeneration. It aims toward the end of human flourishing, the deepest forms of happiness which is liberty of thought and self-governance of soul. Help students to understand that such an education is rare and difficult to achieve, and will require their best efforts and commitment. It will not fall into their laps accidentally, but can be had. If sought out, one can grasp it and in fact get one’s money’s worth. Or, you can pay for the diploma, which is what most parents finance. In an age when parents do so much to protect and care for their children from the very youngest age, why do we so suddenly neglect the most essential things when it comes time to send them away to college?

1 comment:

Rich M said...

I think you nailed the issue on the head when you said that Georgetown really has a dual identity--the Jesuit school aimed at cura personalis and the institution that's striving upwards on the US News and World Report. I think for instance that it's very telling to observe that the MSB generally spurned rankings until it nearly broached the top 25 undergraduate business schools list (http://msb.georgetown.edu/newsroom/news/archive/2005/08/u_s_news_ranks_georgetown_under/)