A Voice Crying in the Bewilderedness

July-August 1998By J. A. Gray

J. A. Gray is Deputy Editor of the NOR.

The Beleaguered College: Essays on Educational Reform.  By Joseph Tussman. Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California (1-510-642-6723). 198 pages. $14.95.

There is a crisis in higher education today. The reports are persistent and the news disquieting. Yet this story — of an educational enterprise that is wayward, presumptuous, plagued by counterfeits, and lacking a moral center — is curiously familiar. Critics (discerners of crisis) have been numerous, eloquent, and surprisingly univocal, from Graeme Hunter in this issue of the NOR to Allan Bloom in the 1980s to Hannah Arendt in 1950 to Meiklejohn in 1940 to Adler and Hutchins and Barr and Buchanan in the 1930s, with their Chicago and St. John’s and Wisconsin programs. The voices of the town criers of crisis echo back through this century.

Before that there have been some obvious landmarks in the criticism of education: Nietzsche mocking European education in 1890, Newman dissecting it in 1850, Swift satirizing it in 1730, Comenius trying to reform it in 1650. These observers, too, had worries like our own. Take the most distant of them, John Amos Comenius, a Protestant bishop. He welcomed the new scientific curriculum, but foresaw the hazards of utilitarian education (specialization, division, isolation, elitism) and tried to forestall them with an educational program based upon the unity of knowledge and the brotherhood of man. An international consultant of sorts, he was cordially listened to in several countries and cordially dismissed.

Good teachers, whether past or present, seem always to issue similar warnings. David Solomon of Notre Dame (in NOR, Dec. 1995) writes that today’s university must help “to liberate students from materialism, relativism, consumerism, technologism, careerism, hedonism, and the other snares and delusions so characteristic of modern secular culture.”

Compare the two foremost teachers of our history, who announced educational crises to their fellow citizens, one in Athens and one in Jerusalem. Socrates was advised, by the god at Delphi, “Know thyself.” To his pupils — the ambitious, moneyed, bright young men of Athens whom the Sophists were grooming for success — he taught (and demonstrated) that the life a man ought to live is one not of self-aggrandizement but of responsible self-knowledge: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The good teacher from Nazareth told His pupils — most of whom came from the uneducated class — “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). He announced to the teachers of Judaism a revised curriculum under a new administration. “You have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Lk. 11:53).

The modern sounds ancient and the ancient sounds modern. Perhaps the crisis in the American university is also timeless in its way, not a novelty but a fresh outbreak of an enduring affliction. A weakness for miseducation — almost a taste for it — seems to plague our race from the very beginning. (Remember how eagerly we signed up for those courses in self-realization and self-esteem in Eden?) This plague breaks out in episodes that display a common basic pattern: Mankind exhibits an unquenchable passion for knowledge and for the freedom knowledge brings, and an inveterate tendency to be seduced by counterfeits of knowledge and freedom. Perhaps the disease cannot be cured but only kept under control. If it really is the same old disease, remedies with old-fashioned names like “liberal education” may prove to be still potent and worth prescribing — if any can be found.

Readers of the NOR have been kept well informed of the current state of the Christian university (Solomon, Dec. 1995; Whitehead, Jul.-Aug. 1997; Moore, Nov. 1997). As for the secular university in North America, Graeme Hunter reports today from within its walls, and the prognosis is grim. He suggests, as do other theists, that the university has irretrievably lost its power to educate, and that Christians should support Christian universities and consider home-schooling for the youngsters. But can this be a sufficient response? A few further reflections come to mind.

First, many of us have gone to, and many of our children will go to, secular schools, from grade school to grad school. Second, even if our kids don’t go to public school, our neighbors’ kids will: Can we afford not to care what kinds of minds our neighbors and fellow citizens are building? Third, even steadfastly Christian institutions may not always be sure-footed, as the Ex Corde Ecclesiae controversy indicates. Even the soundest Christian universities must continually check their curricula for vitality, and should pay heed to any hint that their secular counterparts may be healing themselves.

Finally, let us consider the dictum of Evelyn Waugh: that European civilization is Christian, and when it ceases to be Christian, it will cease to be. Many of us may agree. But in this bold declaration what do we hear? Permission to wash our hands of a culture we call decadent? Or a reminder of our responsibility for it? Are we to retire, with our sacred books, our ways, and our lore, from the stage we have built, from the university we have helped to invent?

To say “they’ll get the universities they deserve” is to say “we’ll get the intellectuals and professionals we deserve.” Prudence, if not charity, demands that believers pay attention. Our model in this can be John Henry Newman, Catholic priest and eventual Cardinal. No theist has expressed the limitations of higher education more succinctly; yet no theist has spoken more eloquently of our need for such education. “Liberal Knowledge…may fitly be sought for its own sake…[and] as constituting the best and highest formation of the intellect for social and political life.” Newman’s matchless work is The Idea of a University (1850), and the words I quote come from it. Newman says that “philosophical or liberal education…which is the proper function of a University” is needed to fulfill “a duty we owe to human society as such, to the state to which we belong, to the sphere in which we move, to the individuals towards whom we are variously related.” That duty is “the formation of citizens.”

Let us add to Newman’s a couple of more recent observations, specifically American and decidedly nontheist. Hannah Arendt (The Crisis in Education, 1950) discerned that American education secretly betrays its children by refusing to treat them like children. “By being emancipated from the authority of adults…the children are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group.” And, “the authority of the educator…rests on his assumption of responsibility for the world. Vis-à-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.” Allan Bloom, whose popular book of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind, blistered our practice of higher education, said bluntly that the American university has betrayed itself and us by “teaching that the most instinctive of all questions — What is good? — had no place in the university….”

Formation of citizens, initiation into the wider world, liberating minds, civilizing the young, goodness? But, we hear: Aren’t those the business of the private conscience? Or the business of the home, or the synagogue, or the church, or the Scouts? Aren’t science and scholarship alone the university’s business, and aren’t they enough? These are typically American questions. But there is ample support from many sides (as I have sketched) for a firm No. Newman puts it with his usual cogency: “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.”

For between facts and values, between is and ought, the university cannot tread a path of neutrality. There is no such path. All actions embody values, and the university’s presumption of being value-free inevitably miseducates students, who after hard experience as adults will begin to doubt both the fact and the value of value-free education. Newman, again, may speak for all: “A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, and not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.” But the modern university, he declared, is a “Babel,” with the “result on ordinary minds, and on the common run of students...[that] they leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness.”

A century and a half after Newman wrote, our complaints sound much like his, and his question is still ours: What is the university to do with its students? We understand the problem; now, where is the solution? Bloom recommended what he called “the good old Great Books approach” but drew up no plans; his talent was for criticism, not construction. A teacher at the University of Virginia writes feelingly in a recent magazine (Harpers, Sept. 1997) about the decline of liberal education and the rise of consumerist education. His wan conclusion is that “it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide.” A half-century after Arendt wrote, the teachers still piously hope that the children will somehow educate themselves. Is there no one who has the key to knowledge and who can show the students — and faculty — how to enter too?

Perhaps so. There is a voice crying in the bewilderedness. It says things like this: “For the mind to be free is for it to be able…to do what it should do. That is the freedom with which education is concerned. For the student who seeks freedom, the implications are drastic.… He must incorporate in himself the power of the culture of which he is the creature.” And: “We are, above all, inheritors and most of our creativity is marginally trivial. To think otherwise is the sin of pride. The play we are enacting did not begin when we opened our eyes. We are not the authors, we have not invented ourselves.” And: “The satanic repudiation of the debt to the creator happens every year, and there are teachers who pander to it.”

The voice is that of Joseph Tussman, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and author of such works as Obligation and the Body Politic and Government and the Mind. His new book is entitled The Beleaguered College: Essays on Educational Reform. Beleaguered? By whom? His answer is that higher education in its indispensable aspect as civilizing institution — what Tussman calls “the college” — is beleaguered (ignored, denied) by higher education in its indispensable aspect as scientific institution — what Tussman calls “the university.” Higher education is a house divided against itself.

Tussman argues that the university must rediscover the college within it. Such rediscovery would amount to a revolution — but a Copernican one, by which I mean that Tussman offers not to tear down the institution but to change its essential understanding of itself, to give it a fundamentally sounder grasp of what is central. Tussman’s first contribution is to create a language in which all parties can acknowledge, discuss, and plan to repair their relations. (The cover of this handsome paperback bears a reproduction of Brueghel’s great painting The Tower of Babel. Tussman knows — as Newman did — that the lack of a shared vocabulary among nominal colleagues is not the badge of a robust cultural diversity but is a symptom of spiritual disarray, and needs urgent amelioration.)

To create a common vocabulary for the modern “multiversity” would take a stroke of genius, and Tussman has been visited (or afflicted) by such a stroke. Perhaps by more than one. First, he sees that the university, though it appears to be a collection of departments giving courses, is actually three distinct programs. “This consists of the graduate program, the upper-division major program, and the largely nonexistent lower division or first program.” The graduate program and the major program know more or less what they are doing as inculcators of expertise, he says, and they have structures that serve them. “But the lower division is an educational wasteland. We cannot abandon there whatever is left of the possibility of liberal education. The first-program conception can save it, and we cannot accept present obstacles as permanent barriers.”

Second, he sees that the lower division (the freshman and sophomore years, the “first program”) is where the rediscovered college would naturally reside within the university, before the students are dispatched into the various schools and departments and professions. Without the lower division, the university “is only a glorified trade school” and not a civilizing influence.

Third, he sees that young students should have old teachers. Though a graduate student or a new Ph.D., a budding expert in a given discipline, might well teach a course in that discipline, the civilizing of raw minds cannot be expected of minds just a little older, a little less raw, and devoted to acquiring professional expertise.

Are these insights? Anyone familiar with the university might call them fantasies. But Tussman presents and defends a theory, answering contrary arguments and noting inherent difficulties. And Tussman has more to offer than theory. At U.C., Berkeley, he twice gave specially devised, two-year, lower-division Programs, and this book includes reports-in-progress on them and reflections on them after they had ended.

The Program Tussman describes consists of two years of steady reading, frequent writing, and regular discussion with 150 students and six senior professors. (The Program is meant to be a full or nearly full academic load; a student may take one outside course per semester.) The syllabus is intriguing. The first half of Year One is Greece: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod’s poetry, Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, Xenophon’s Anabasis, plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes and major Socratic dialogues of Plato, including The Republic. The second half of Year One is mostly England: The Old and New Testaments (King James Version); King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Mill’s On Liberty, Arnold’s Culture & Anarchy — and Machiavelli’s cynical political primer, The Prince.

Year Two is spent in the United States: Some history by Henry Adams, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Edmund Burke on the revolutions in France and America, John Calhoun on states’ rights, major opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, American autobiographies (Henry Adams, Lincoln Steffens, Thoreau, Malcolm X), and a large dose of the European challengers of both Enlightenment and Revelation — Marx and Freud.

It was David Solomon (NOR, Dec. 1995) who said that nowadays “students need less to be liberated from narrow prejudice than to be given assistance in acquiring cultural resources. And no richer cultural resources are available than the broadly Christian intellectual tradition that informs Western culture.” Solomon of Notre Dame was speaking about what a Christian university might hope to do. Tussman of Berkeley has not only assigned the task to the public university but has given it the tools for the job, in the shape of a Program that is, he says, “in manageable form and extent, a rich version of the basic moral curriculum of our culture.”

Tussman explains: “The Greeks constitute for us a great exemplary episode. Its dramatic center is the Peloponnesian War seen through the eyes of Thucydides. But everything we read illuminates that tragedy. Homer is in the background, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides are brooding commentators, Plato reaps its lesson. It is an unparalleled chorus for the basic human plot. We echo it in everything we do. It is the great introduction to ourselves. The seventeenth century...happens to be where we pick up the other great cultural strand of our lives. It gives us the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Hobbes, and Milton — the Judeo-Christian tradition in a strain especially constitutive of the American tradition and character. As for America, we take the covenant, the Constitution, the law, and the court, the living complex institution, as the thread that guides us in the attempt to understand what we are up to.... To the charge that this is all Western provincial and that a citizen of the modern world needs to know a ‘foreign’ culture, we have a standard two-part answer: Our real culture is a foreign culture to most of us; and, you cannot understand a foreign culture if you do not understand your own.”

Tussman’s abiding concern is for the ordinary minds and the common run of students. Newman was exasperated on their behalf. Tussman has an idea of how to help: “First, ‘students’ are not ‘scholars.’ This is not a complaint. It is a fact, and not even a deplorable one. It has nothing to do with intelligence or the capacity to learn.... The American college student is simply a normal American who has behaved well in high school and who can afford to go to college.... What the freshman is going to become vocationally is really beside the point. He is already something that he will continue to be — a member of a society, a social individual, a center of values and awareness, a person required to act on our common stage. He needs to get his bearings there so that, if he doesn’t wander off, he can understand the part he is to play.” (As John Paul II says in Laborem Exercens, “becoming a human being is precisely the main purpose of the whole process of education.”)

A skeptic might say: This is a tempest in an academic teapot, an intramural squabble over the privilege of entertaining some privileged kids. Set up another stall in the bazaar of the modern multiversity, if you must. So what? American college kids are going to be good enough citizens already. They are already part of the system. America’s educational problem is the underprivileged, the alienated, the marginalized. What do you have for them?

This is a fair question, and a good answer is available, from a similar program, unconnected with Tussman (except by common insight) and given not in a university but in a slum. I can only sketch here the report by Earl Shorris (Harpers, Sept. 1997) on his series of one-year programs on the Lower East Side of New York. The pupils are young (aged 18 to 35) and very poor — homeless or drug-afflicted or victims of crime or criminals themselves — people living in a “surround of force, moving as fast as they could, driven by necessity, without a moment to reflect.” Shorris in that sentence sums up the “state of nature,” the war of each against all, as pithily as Hobbes did in Leviathan. Comfortable university freshmen assigned to read Hobbes by teachers like Tussman have to be persuaded that such a war is even conceivable, let alone ubiquitous and to be dreaded. Shorris’s students live in it. This makes, says Shorris, for apt pupils.

For a year Shorris’s students and teachers read together Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Thucydides, and the Old and New Testaments, and studied art, logic, and poetry. The students, Shorris writes, developed “an infatuation with Socrates…, their abilities to divine and solve problems…increased; their use of verbal aggression…decreased. And they had all notably more appreciation for the concepts of benevolence, spirituality, universalism, and collectivism. Compared with unemployment, welfare, or prison, the humanities are a bargain.” It strikes me that Tussman in the ivied halls and Shorris in the mean streets are doing the same public service with the same simple and accessible tools. As Tussman writes, “The mystery of initiation is that it is the joining of the invisible city, the commitment to ideals and institutions…. This initiation is…the precondition of genuine dissent. It provides the understanding without which ‘dissent’ cannot rise above mere opposition.”

So, liberal education may provide initiation and liberation both for middle-class college students and for people who are down and out. All gains in knowledge and culture are obviously good. But these “liberal” curricula seem to feature the Bible, and a theist might well ask: If these people are reading the Bible, how are they reading it? Jews and Christians may legitimately inquire if secular education can use our sacred texts without abusing them. The Program, as Tussman describes it, treats the Bible not as mere literature, not even as Grand Old Literature (as a Gilgamesh, a Beowulf), but as a constitutive element of our culture, as something we share whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. The Program quietly puts Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Isaiah, and the Evangelists into the syllabus. The inherent power of the Scriptures ensures that the Fall of Man and the Fall of Lucifer, the covenant with Israel under Moses, and Jesus’ temptation in the desert, His Sermon on the Mount, and His interview with Pilate, are among the most resonant items in the curriculum.

The following paragraph from Tussman (apropos of Milton’s Satan) suggests the kind of use Tussman makes of the Judeo-Christian elements of his curriculum: “Satan’s great flaw…is his inability to enjoy the given. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ is not the cry of a lover of freedom but of one who would reign at all costs and who does not understand what ‘serving in heaven’ means. He is mixed up about freedom, power, and goodness, and the pandemonium he creates is a dark parody of the order he rejects. He is enamored only of his own creation and cannot accept the good when it comes as a gift. He is surly about gifts. His missing virtue is docility…. Docility is not merely a matter of obedience, although intelligent obedience is also necessary. It is a complex set of attitudes toward the world and the immediate context that is a condition of growth toward freedom. This has been expressed canonically in the promise that only the docile shall inherit the earth, that unruliness is self-defeating.”

The education Tussman proposes is not religious; it promotes neither revealed religion nor any variety of civil religion; but neither is it reductive or historicist. The “Judeo-Christian tradition” and the Western “moral curriculum” — and their classic texts — are treated as a living enterprise, not exhibits in a museum. Tussman sketches the way the Program opens: “We live with the Iliad for a few weeks. The strangeness wears off. A terrible question creeps up on us. Has anything changed? Are we still on the plain before Troy? That is how we begin.” Undefended intellectual adventure of this sort is unsettling but engaging. The students revisit our most consequential crises, with their frankly religious elements. Are we still in the desert with Moses and Aaron? Are we still in Eden being tempted by Satan? Are we still in a Thebes prey to Oedipus’s overweening intellect, or Dionysus’s bacchanalities? Are we still in civil-war-torn England trying to establish sound government amid religious controversy? Are we still in Philadelphia hammering out a federal constitution, and the relations of church and state? Are we still before the Supreme Court, arguing the seminal cases in freedom of speech and freedom of religion? This is what happens in such a program.

How do I know? It is time for me to confess that I spent my first two years of university in Tussman’s Program at Berkeley. If I sound partial, I am at least well informed, and Christians may choose to trust the eyewitness account of a fellow worshiper. I can report that one of the teachers in the Program was a Jesuit priest, a student of Thomas Aquinas, who gently broke it to the students that the same insight that tells us we have natural rights also tells us that we have natural responsibilities. For the generation of students who talked about blowing their minds, that was indeed a mind-blower.

Students in the Program entered the common hall by many different doors. As a cradle Catholic and graduate of Catholic high school, bored with mom and dad and the nuns and brothers, and eager to be knowing as well as knowledgeable, I was ripe for training in skepticism and debunkery. The Program declined to provide it. Through another door came a boy from public high school, a progressive, agnostic, non-observant Jew who, after a year or so, remarked to me one day, “You know, it’s not Marx and Freud who are the revolutionary thinkers — it’s Jesus.”

According to Biff Rocha of Campus Crusade for Christ (in NOR, March 1998), this salutary shock to the collegiate mind is not unusual. Even the cradle Christian may fail to grasp the true dimensions of Jesus of Nazareth until he sees Him anew in a Western Civ class (a requirement that used to be routine but now is rare), where he may be surprised to discover that the God of his household is not, after all, a household god, and the Jesus of his childhood is not a tale for children.

To the objection that, though the issues may be major, the material is mostly archaic and the questions settled and stale, I would reply: Look again. In the Greek part of the Program alone one encounters the up-to-date civil rights complaint of Euthyphro, the sophisticated political cynicism of Thrasymachus, and the inside-the-Beltway demagoguery of Cleon. Aeschylus writes about the Menendez brothers and Ellie Nessler and O.J. Simpson, Sophocles dramatizes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Homer analyzes the use of military force in the Middle East, and Thucydides explores the tribulations of a commercial democracy with entangling foreign commitments. Again, the old turns out to be the new.

But is this new-old curriculum fresh enough to renew an institution that has declined (some would say expanded) from university to multiversity to — in Graeme Hunter’s fine coinage — omniversity? We now confront an institution whose besetting question is no longer, What curriculum shall we follow? but, Does any such thing as a curriculum exist? Tussman says, “A college consists of faculty and students appropriately related by and involved in a plan or program of study. This would seem to be an irreducible trinity, but there are heresies abroad in the land which, in one way or another, are antitrinitarian.”

The old, genial American heresy was that a university is a student and a teacher sitting on a log. The new, cool heresy is that a university is a student sitting alone with his computer. We and our children are subjected to a massive advertising campaign to persuade us that curricula don’t exist and teachers are superfluous — that study is logging-on, learning is browsing, and wisdom is downloading. The dogma behind this heresy is that intellect is information and the mind is an information processor. But is modem calling unto modem the same as mind encountering mind? Is wisdom a variety of information?

Newman’s acuity again makes him timeless. In 1850 he scolded the university for its complicity in the fatuous delusion that “the printing press…is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously, enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.” Change printing press to personal computer, change volumes to information, and we see how retrograde our pet novelty is. The Internet, for all the doors it opens, is probably not the key to the kingdom of knowledge and wisdom.

Nevertheless, feverish construction is under way on the old site at Babel: not a tower this time, and certainly not an ivory tower, but a democratic — indeed, demotic — network of computers. The builders seek not to build up to heaven but to link all the earth. It’s a web unlike any ever heard of, in which, we are promised, everybody is a spider and nobody is a fly. The obvious effect on the university must be simply to render it obsolete. Its erstwhile importance was accidental; it provided things people used to need, like libraries and classrooms and blackboards. Curricula? We’ll concoct our own. Teachers? We have hyperlinks and CD-ROM and video-conferencing. Science labs? Corporations and governments can build their own. Football games? Hmm, that’s a stumper.

This may be the last moment at which the university can decide if it is an institution or just a complex, a shopping mall for the mind. For scholars pursuing their specialties with their grad students, the on-line university may serve well. For librarians and archivists, computerization may sound like heaven: much information in little space, tiny disks replacing bulky volumes, moth and rust consuming not. For administrators, the virtual university may spell pure relief: When the campus is the personal computer, there can be no sit-ins (though possibly fewer jobs for administrators as well).

When the university remained and students passed through, the question had to be asked, What are they? Are they apprentices or clients or initiates or recruits or patients? An answer was required because — well, there they were, in their thousands. In the new dispensation so devoutly hoped for, the student will remain, and the university will pass through — through the student’s modem and across his computer screen in his private room. The initiatory task of the university — of anybody but the computer salesman — thus evaporates, and the old question has its answer: The student, like the rest of us, is, after all, just a customer. And the customer is king.

But are the perennial educational questions truly rendered moot by these developments? Or are they only buried a little deeper, beneath another layer of consumerism and false autonomy? With so thin, so spurious, so winningly self-indulgent a counterfeit of education being marketed so vigorously, it is more expedient than ever for the university — and the society that supports it — to rediscover and revive the college as Tussman conceives it. Now is the moment. But Tussman, like Newman, will be timely whenever we pick up his book.

To return to Tussman’s formulation of his main theme: “Something has happened when you can grasp the thread that runs from Orestes and Antigone to West Virginia v. Barnette and the [latest] presidential campaign…. When you can see that the attempt to impose the tablets of the law upon the worshipers of the golden calf is the same struggle as is involved in our present attempts to make the constitutional covenant and the law prevail over our hedonic impulses and narrow partialities. The failure to provide this great context is to send our students, robbed of their proper clothing, of their proper minds, naked into the jabbering world. It is stupidly irresponsible of the university to allow this to happen. It is a betrayal of its trust. It is…a consequence of the fact that the university, simply by being what it is, has killed the college.”

The title says “beleaguered,” but in this one bitter moment, Tussman says “killed.” We Christians know something about unexpected and consequential resurrections from the dead. We of all people might appreciate what is at stake in the American university, and might hope for, and work for, its revivification.

DOSSIER: Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman

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