I seem to be on a roll, delivering a number of talks in recent weeks on higher education reform. If I'm not careful, I'll get typecast.
In any event, today I spoke to a group of Georgetown undergraduates at the second annual "Take Back Georgetown Day." While I drew somewhat from my remarks at the "Choosing the Right College" event last weekend, it was a different audience, and it ended up being a somewhat different message. Of particular importance, I thought, was my concluding warning that conservative efforts to frame their greivances in terms of the desire for multicultural representation was a problematic, and potentially self-defeating, tactic. In any event, here's what I said:
“The Current State of Higher Education”
Take Back Georgetown Day
February 3, 2007
Patrick J. Deneen
I want to thank the organizers of this conference for the invitation to speak before you this afternoon. I’m honored by the invitation, and admire the spirit, the passion, and the devotion of the students who have put this conference together, just as I applaud the willingness of you, the audience, to be here in order to reflect upon the restoration of this great university.
I have been asked to offer reflections about “The Current State of Higher Education.” If I were forced to give Higher Education a grade, even in an age of grade inflation, I think I could only muster an unenthusiastic C-. As you all know, this grade stands in for a REAL grade – one reflecting my view that higher education is failing its students. The reason for this is very simple: we don’t know what we’re doing. I mean this literally: we, most of us on the faculty and the administrators charged with running the University, don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing here. If Higher Education today were a term paper, I’d give it that C- grade with the following comments in big letters in bright red ink: “there are many interesting strands of thought here, but you have no thesis and no argument. What is your governing principle, your organizing structure? Your paper is all sound and fury, entertaining at some points, engaging at others, even edifying from time to time, but it goes nowhere and has no defining purpose.”
Human beings are funny creatures. We’re told that we’re a lot like monkeys or orangutans – maybe only 2 or 3% of our DNA is different. It turns out that that 2 or 3 percent is pretty important though – we haven’t heard yet of any Universities for monkeys or Dolpin academies. For all our vaunted similarity to the smartest beasts, those creatures still get through life basically by instinct. Humans, on the other hand, do very little by instinct. There can be very little doubt that our species would have been extinct long ago if we acted according to instinct. As a parent, I spend many of my waking hours trying to keep my kids from acting according to instinct, knowing that if they did, at the very least they’d be less civilized than monkeys, and in all likelihood they would have been dead a long time ago.
We humans have developed educational institutions – institutions from from marriage and the family to “Mommy and Me” to Elementary Schools to the Harvards and Oxfords and the Sorbonnes – because we figured out long ago that instinct doesn’t work for us. We’re instinct deficient. That’s what it means to be a human being – we are creatures who become who we are by some means other than instinct. We’ve been forced to reflect actively on what it is to be a human, and what actions are necessary to achieving the goal of becoming fully human. Fulfilling our nature does not come naturally to us, and for that reason, we are creatures that have developed culture as the means of fully becoming the human creature.
After all, the words “culture” and “cultivate” are more than just coincidentally similar. We are creatures who are cultivated through culture. Cultivation is the act of caring and tending for the young with an aim of raising them to maturity and fruition. In agriculture – another word that contains that word “culture” – we cultivate young plants so that they can achieve the full flourishing of their nature. We raise tomato plants to bear tomato fruit, and acorns to become oak trees. Just as in agriculture, in human life it is through the medium of culture that we cultivate children so that they can achieve the full flourishing of their human nature. A central feature of culture is culture is therefore education. Education, understood as a form of cultivation, necessarily aims at the perfecting of human nature. Properly understood, education is the effort to realize a certain end, the formation of the human being. The end defines the kind of education, the kind of cultivation, we extend to that creature.
When I say that we are failing our students because we don’t know what we are doing, I mean to say that we no longer have any real conception of the ends of education. I’m not even speaking here of contending ends, of disagreement about the proper aim of education which, at a deeper level, reflects differing beliefs about human nature itself. What I’m saying is that we don’t even think of education in relation to an end at all. We now operate in institutions that have no conception of the proper ends of education, because they have not thought about what kind of human being we are endeavoring to cultivate. Ask most professors what they teach, and they will respond, they teach “critical thinking.” But they haven’t subjected that phrase to critical thought. What is it that we are supposed to be criticizing, and what is it we’re supposed to be thinking? The claim is that we are teaching students a means, a method, a way of thinking that lacks content or direction.
Education is now a hodge-podge of opportunities and a dizzying variety of offerings that – like the C- essay – have some very interesting strands, but which lacks any governing structure. We have spread a smorgasbord of countless delicacies, piles of confections and sweets, quite a lot that’s fattening, and here and there some healthy food - and tell our young, “dig in!” without guidance or direction. It’s as if we raised tomato plants with a steady diet of chocolate sauce, salt water, roast beef, and a bit of tomato plant fertilizer, and expect healthy fruit at the end.
Perhaps, some people would reply, an education aimed at a certain end is too repressive. It does not allow us an extensive freedom of choice about the courses we take or even the ends that we define. They prefer the modern University without a structure or a governing principle. Better to have our freedom, freedom of choice, than the oppression of structures.
When I stop laughing, I reply in turn – it’s very sad that your form of education actually feeds your self-delusion. The choice such a person defends is much like the extensive choices we have when it comes to buying automobiles. We can choose an endless variety of models, of designs, of options, of colors. Stick shift or automatic. Leather or cloth. Convertible or hardtop. But one thing that we can’t choose, not really and not without great difficulty, is whether to have a car or not. We are so busy celebrating our extensive freedom of choice that we don’t notice that there’s a structure nonetheless, one that may in fact leave us far less free than we believe. People are told that they can be anything they want when the grow up, but you don’t find many carriage wheel makers or blacksmiths around these days. There are structures, and we ignore them to our peril.
Let me tell you a little about the structure that so many believe to be the absence of structure, that is, a form of liberation. In this structure, faculty are trained in disciplines. These disciplines are cut up into every narrower specializations, and each faculty member receives a training with an aim to making him or her an expert in that miniscule slice of human knowledge. To become a future faculty member you are required to write a dissertation on a narrow and never-before explored topic in order to prove one’s expertise to the approval of five to a dozen other scholars who are experts in your field. Once a University professor, you are required to publish arcane and jargon-filled articles in leading journals in your chosen field of specialization, each of which has an audience that numbers in the low double digits – if that. Faculty rewards – hiring, tenure, promotion and raises – are based extensively if not exclusively upon your publication records. Each member of the faculty has achieved their position not because of undergraduate teaching, but in spite of it. One’s orientation within one’s institution tends to be upon graduate students who are training in similarly narrow fields, or beyond the institution, to a tiny number of other scholars who share the narrow expertise, and whose word can propel or dash an academic’s career. Far from being “structureless,” the existing University has a definite structure, one that resembles freedom, but in fact reflects studied neglect if not outright annoyance at undergraduate education. The structure that we have is not “freedom,” but hyper-specialization in which there is no incentive or even shared belief that education aims at achieving a wholeness or a specific end. It is enough if every professor teaches his or her own piece. Putting it together is your jobs, and more often, something that simply doesn’t happen. What we now call liberal education in most cases does not liberate – the consequence of this current structure is to leave students where they are, subject to the prevailing dogmas of our time. We mistake superficial freedom of choice for freedom. We leave our students in a kind of blissful, if pathetic, ignorance.
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 receive one, not knowing what it is they should be seeking in the first instance, whereas those students who enter the University with well-formed understanding of the ends of education and 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.
So, when we gather at a conference whose stated ambition is to “Take Back Georgetown,” we must ask, what is it that we seek to take back? What is it that has been lost? The answer to this is that we need to acknowledge anew that education aims at a specific end – the cultivation of human nature – thus, that nature exists, and that culture is of utmost importance and deserving defense. This will not be easy, because the modern University is against nature and against culture. To take back Georgetown, we need to rediscover both nature and culture. We need to reassert the importance of tradition. And, as I’ve said this will be difficult. Because, while many of you in attendance today consider yourselves to be conservative, you might not much like what I’m about to tell you. Conservatism went out of fashion in the 17th century, and was pretty much dead by the 19th. There really aren’t many conservatives around today. There are probably as many conservatives today as there are tinsmiths. And, they make less money.
The modern University, like modernity itself, was born out of a profound mistrust of tradition. Tradition is something that binds us to the past: it is the inheritance of previous generations, the accumulated wisdom of our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers, the repository of trial and error and memory. Tradition is a kind of enacted form of memory and gratitude, one that places us under the obligation of people who lived before us, and which forces upon us an acknowledgment that we did not make ourselves and that we owe allegiance to the past.
Tradition lies at the heart of culture. Cultivation is an art that is handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, in the fields, in the kitchen, in the town square and in the churches. Through the very act of cultivation we teach our young how to cultivate in turn. Past practice instructs us how best to raise tomato plants and oak trees, and similarly, how to bring to fruition the nature of human young. This is the original meaning of conservatism: it is the conservation – the preservation – of ways of doing things because they have been shown to be better than many alternatives. They are practices that accord with our nature. For a conservative, it is not necessary for every generation to begin anew; indeed, it would be a foolish and wasteful undertaking to ignore the accumulated wisdom of the past. Conservatives thus defend “paternalism” (and “maternalism” for that matter) that is, the idea that an older generation (to begin with, one’s parents) know better than a younger generation. “Father Knows Best” is not just the name of a nerdy old T.V. show, but a fundamental truth according to a traditional worldview. Authority was understood to be a legitimate source of rule and guidance, not an arbitrary imposition upon our liberty. The older generation is responsible for directing the younger generation in the right direction, and the younger generation is expected to accept that guidance as informed by experience and practical wisdom, and most of all, out of deep devotion for the good of the young. Education was undertaken in this spirit – it was guided and directed by professors and administrators who sought the cultivation and fruition of the younger generation.
This means, practically, that these elders would extensively craft a curriculum on behalf of the students in the belief that the judgment of elders – guided by experience – is a sure guide to achieving human excellence and human flourishing. It would be a betrayal of their responsibility and their duty if they allowed the young to substitute their own immature judgment for the inherited knowledge of the past. Far from representing “freedom,” such youthful decision-making would be a kind of enslavement to whim, fancy, ignorance and arbitrariness. A declaration that we seek not to interfere in the free choices of our charges would not be a sign of respect for their autonomy, but a reflection that we have betrayed our devotion to seeking their good – basically, that we don’t give a damn.
This is not to suggest that tradition is static or unchanging. Traditions alter according to alterations of circumstance or the gradual accretion of more knowledge, more experience. This knowledge is added to the storehouse without contradicting that accumulated store of wisdom or rendering it moot or useless. Tradition changes, but changes slowly, not precipitously, with each generation contributing in turn to the store of accumulated knowledge.
A traditional university – a University one might seek to “take back” – would endeavor to teach from the stores of this ancient wisdom. In its earlier days, Georgetown educated students according to its belief that tradition was a source of knowledge and wisdom. There was no choice: one had to learn the classical languages, Greek and Latin, so that students 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,” as is so often the case on campuses today, such an education was infused with a kind of reverence and piety, of gratitude and respect.
The modern University came into being 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 – liberty was now understood as the absence of obstacles and the liberation from oppression. The immediate perceived object were parents, or ancestors, or traditions. The 1960’s saying “don’t trust anyone over 30” was kind of the culmination of modern thought that saw the ancestral as oppressive and arbitrary. Individual choice and liberation of will was now understood as freedom, and not the achievement of a certain end. We became charged with fashioning our own lives, our own ends, of Emersonian “self-reliance.”
At a deeper level, the modern world was formed out of a hostility toward nature itself. Nature represented the ultimate limitation, whether as a force that obstructed the achievement of our wishes or comfort, or even in the form of “human nature” that formed an obstacle to the ends I might wish to choose for myself. In the form of external nature, the goal of education increasingly took the form of mastery or dominion over nature, and modern natural science displaced other disciplines – especially the humanities – in the place of preeminence.
The guiding imperative of education became progress, and not tradition. The new and the young displaced the old and the ancestral. In a world marked by progress, youth would always be more “learned.” This fact is demonstrated daily when parents go to their children to find out how to use the computer. The library’s place of preeminence was replaced by the laboratory. Not tradition, but change and progress were now highlighted (characteristically, John Dewey – the great American prophet of this new form of learning – began the “Lab School” in Chicago, and replaced a curriculum based upon books with “experiential learning.”). Nature was no longer a standard in any sense, since nature was now manipulable and alterable. Why learn the ancient ways of cultivating tomatoes and oak trees when we could alter the genetic code of life itself? When we could extract and process natural resources that would replace old and less efficient ways of cultivation? Why accept the facts of biology when those “facts” could be altered? The definition of what it was to be a human – already challenging and elusive – became increasingly indefensible. Many people began to conclude that there was no human nature, only endless possibilities of self-creation. Education increasingly became oriented not toward the achievement of a certain end, but rather an invitation to endless possibilities.
This “celebration of endless possibilities” is the origin of our current obsession with “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is actually hostile to culture. It is part of the modern University’s program to eviscerate culture, only now through the apparent celebration of culture. Culture is a complete and complex array of memory and practice that must be deeply lived and embraced, as aware to us much of the time as a fish is aware of water. Multiculturalism, by contrast, regards culture as fashion, as a kind of outfit that can be worn and then replaced with other fashions. Culture simply becomes one more of the infinite variety of possibilities that is made available to us in our project of self-fashioning. If we don’t like our culture, we can try on another. In effect, there is really no culture, only the semblance of culture. Culture becomes different foods, clothing styles, dance steps and tchatckas. Without a belief in nature, there is effectively no need for “cultivation,” and hence no real place for culture. Multiculturalism is simply a shorthand term for the death of culture.
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. Core curricula – a remnant of an older understanding in which tradition and culture were seen as the necessary conduits of a true form of self-understanding – were increasingly seen as repositories of oppression and stultifying limits. As a parade of protesters at Stanford University shouted in the 1980s, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go…” In many of America’s Universities, core curricula were overthrown outright. In other Universities they were retained, but they were practically eviscerated, and philosophically defeated inasmuch as their reason for existence was seen no longer to apply.
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.
You perhaps thought that I was here to deliver a cheerful pep talk laying out a strategy of what would needed to be done to “Take Back Georgetown.” Instead, I bring some rather sobering tidings – the problems that confront the serious student who seeks an education guided by an aim toward the end of human flourishing must understand this as a struggle that goes far beyond Georgetown, and far beyond current politics. The fight lies at the deepest roots of philosophical assumptions about what it is to be human, about the place of nature in education, and about the place and role of tradition and culture in modern society. Taking Back Georgetown will require more, much more, than “balanced” debate on campus. It requires a liberal education – an education that liberates students from the prevailing prejudices and orthodoxies of our time. But, how can one achieve this liberal education in settings that are otherwise so hostile, indeed are formed in active hostility, to liberal education?
The news is bad, but it’s not all bad. 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 in the belief that this is our highest calling, our vocation.
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. In this sense, Georgetown is actually better than many, even most Universities. There are more nooks and corners here than many hyper-rationalized Universities. Where they exist, avail yourself of them (if you’ve never taken a class with Father Schall, do so – IMMEDIATELY).
What I am saying is that it is possible, in your studies, to “take back Georgetown,” and to do it now, while you are students. You can have a classically liberal education if you decide to seek it out. 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.
For you to have a classical liberal education, you need to grasp the reasons for its existence, the end toward which it aims. There is a core curriculum at Georgetown – you should strive to get as much out of it as you can. 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 your educational experience. This means that you 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 your 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.
Most often you will find these classes taught by 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. They are great teachers and care deeply about undergraduate education.
At a number of campuses, Georgetown included, there are increasingly some other resources as well. A small number of a younger generation of scholars who abhor the vice-grip of political correctness have at various institutions gained a foothold, often enough of one by which to make a considerable difference in their institutions. Some of these faculty have sought to create initiatives that have the virtue of being conscious efforts to actively combat the dominant ideology of anti-Western and American tradition that pervades college campuses. They also have become a way for otherwise embattled and often isolated faculty who are devoted to classical liberal education to find one another, and, similarly, for students to find one another and these faculty. They thus serve to amplify otherwise potentially muted voices on campus, as well as bringing to campus additional voices who confirm that the tradition is very much alive and vibrant. It was out of this hope, and with this ambition, that I began “The Tocqueville Forum.” We have been successful bringing alternative voices to campus, and providing a locus for otherwise isolated traditional minded scholars and students, and I hope a catalyst for change. There has been much interest in the Program, signifying a thirst for a deeper learning and a rejection of so much contemporary orthodoxy. Our growing presence after only five months gives some reason for hope.
However, let me conclude with a warning – one that I must heed, even as I invite you to ponder it. I must admit to ambivalence about these new Centers, even the Tocqueville Forum, even as I applaud their creation and acknowledge their necessity. They replace in partial form what once necessarily governed on college campuses. Their danger is that they become isolated ghettos of classical liberal learning, one more “culture” in the universe of diverse multiculturalism on today’s college campus, an example of robust diversity and difference. What was once understood to govern college campuses becomes an interest group, vaguely tainted with suspicion. It’s difficult to see how else a reversal can begin to take place, but those of us involved with such endeavors must be wary of simply being subsumed and incorporated in the dominant ideology of our time.
I think you should also be aware of this danger as you think today about not only how to “take Back Georgetown,” but to what end. In the Conference’s Mission Statement on its website, there is mention of the high proportion of liberal professors on campus, the overwhelming support of the faculty for Democratic candidates, and a politically more evenly divided student body. There is the suggestion that conservatives should demand “representation” and balance on campus. I urge you to be wary, however: framing your vision in those terms represents a capitulation to the dominant worldview. Our “culture” is defended as just one more legitimate culture needing representation on a diverse campus. Ours is just one more partial way of life, as legitimate (and as optional) as any other. Conservatism becomes a lifestyle option, a Red State fashion.
As is often the case in the heat of battle, the means can overwhelm or obscure the end. I agree that there needs to be more balance among faculty – but not for the sake of balance. I agree that there needs to be more representation of conservatives – but not for the sake of diversity. I agree that there need to be conservative voices – but not for the sake of self-affirmation.
I urge you to remain vigilant about the goal – the affirmation of education undertaken with a firm belief that it aims toward an end, the flourishing of the human person. It defends the central place of culture as the medium that fosters the fruition of our nature. It highlights the role of education in the formation of good character, of decency and respect, of honor and gratitude. It seeks to inculcate the virtues, including habits that reinforce and solidify those virtues. These are virtues that are both defined by, and lead us to, the end of education. As John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in The Idea of the University, All that goes to constitute a gentleman, the carriage, gait, address, gestures, voice; the ease, the self-possession, the courtesy, the power of conversing, the talent of not offending; the lofty principle, the delicacy of thought, the happiness of expression, the taste and propriety, the generosity and forbearance, the candor and consideration, the openness of hand - these qualities, some of them come by nature, some of them may be found in any rank, some of them are a direct precept of Christianity.” In and through cultivation we become, naturally, cultivated.
Sadly, you strive mightily to come here, you pay exorbitant tuition bills, you labor intensively in the effort to succeed, all the while now being forced to be largely responsible for securing your own liberal education. You are expected already to know the very thing that is supposed to be imparted by that education. The fact that you are here today give me reason for hope. Knowledge that there is a problem, a lack, an awareness of our own ignorance (that old paradox of Socrates, the knowledge that I lack knowledge), is the first step in a liberal education. I urge you to take the second step, and the one after, and to move closer to the end of education that will order your time here at Georgetown, and the whole of your lives. I applaud you for your desire to take back Georgetown, knowing that in that taking you will be in fact be giving a great and lasting gift to yourselves and to future generations of students.