004 Higher Education in America

Since Allen Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind in the mid-1980’s, several probing studies have extended and underlined his concern for the integrity of higher education in America. I regard Illiberal Education: the Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, by Dinesh D’Souza (New York: The Free Press, c. 1991) one of the best of the recent critiques.

D’Souza is a former White House domestic policy analyst now associated with the American Enterprise Institute. Born in India, he’s lived in the U.S. since 1978 and brings something of an outsider’s perspective to his inquiry. His youthful appearance (allowing him to pass as a student) and non-Western ethnicity allowed him easy access that to the university constituencies he studied.

What he found disturbed him. “Most American universities have diluted or displaced their ‘core curriculum’ in the great works of Western civilization to make room for new course requirements stressing non-Western cultures, Afro-American Studies, and Women’s Studies” (p. 5). Consequently, students easily graduate from a significant percentage of universities without taking courses in history, literature, philosophy, or foreign language. This, D’Souza argues, compromises the quality of higher education.

In part this results from administrators’ hyper-concern for essentially political issues. In a chapter entitled “More Equal Than Others: Admissions Policy at Berkeley,” D’Souza documents how admissions policies favor African-Americans and Hispanics while discriminating against Asian-Americans and Whites. Between 1966 and 1988, when students were admitted on a purely merit basis, Berkeley’s Asian student population increased from five to twenty-six percent. Consequently, affirmative action strategies have sought to increase the number of Blacks and Hispanics, decreasing the number of Whites and Asians.

Two women D’Souza talked with illustrate what he sees as the consequence of such affirmative action. Thuy Nguyuen arrived in this country in 1980, a Vietnamese boat person who’d survived a refugee camp in Thailand. Once here, she learned English, achieved a 3.8 GPA in high school and scored 1,000 on the SAT exam (a bit below what assures admittance to Berkeley). Failing to gain admission to there, she enrolled at the University of California, Davis, studying architecture. “‘I have faced some discrimination,’ Nguyen said, ‘but I don’t worry about it.’ Her philosophy is simple. ‘You just have to be persistent in what you are doing. Don’t worry about how much racism there is in society. The main thing is to focus on what you can do yourself. The future is more important than the past, and you can change the future'” (33-34).

The second woman, a young Black named Melanie Lewis, was admitted to Berkeley with a 3.6 GPA and a 1,000 SAT score. She comes from a relatively prosperous family and “could not remember a single incident in which she was a victim of prejudice” (34). Yet she insists: “‘I am oppressed, I will always be oppressed'” (34). Despite her privileged position at Berkeley, she laments her niche in American society. Many like her fail to graduate from the very universities which so assiduously recruited them and will, with some justification, blame “the system” when they should blame the affirmative action which set them up to fail.

Yet by defining themselves as victims, by encouraging the educational system to grant preferential rights to them as victims, D’Souza thinks, minorities encourage a host of counter-productive attitudes and behavioral patterns. Some minority advocates actually “aspire to victim status,” seeking “the moral capital of victimhood” (p. 242). This proves to be an illusion, albeit a soothing shroud, for “Victimhood may provoke sympathy, but it does not, by itself, produce admiration” (p. 243). And that, ultimately, is what minority peoples most need from themselves as well as others.

Subsequent chapters explore “multiculturalism at Stanford,” “the roots of protest at Howard,” “racial incidents at Michigan,” “subverting academic standards at Duke,” and “teaching race and gender at Harvard.” What D’Souza fears (though he favors many of the racial minority and feminist social concerns) is the growing power of political pressure groups which are sizably changing the very nature of higher education in America.

Consequently, students are short-changed by a university experience which is dogmatic and propagandistic, imposing political perspectives on them: “instead of liberal education, what American students are getting is its diametrical opposite, an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance, which is to say, illiberal education” (p. 229).

“Politically Correct” opinions in elite universities, generally formulated by professors nurtured by the counter-culture of the 1960’s, tend to be anti-Western, pro-feminist (if not anti-male), anti-White and pro-“people of color.” Consequently, Donald Kagan, dean of arts and sciences at Yale, says, “‘It is common in universities today to hear talk of politically correct opinions, or PC for short. These are questions that are not really open to argument. It takes real courage to oppose the campus orthodoxy. . . . I was a student dur-ing the days of McCarthy, and there is less freedom now than there was then'” (p. 239).

D’Souza focused on only a half-dozen of the nation’s premier universities, but his concerns address a much broader spectrum. His approach is journalistic and highly anecdotal, but it rests upon diligent first-hand research and the cogent integration of published data. The book reads easily, yet it makes some profound points. It certainly deserves the attention of all who are concerned about higher education in America.

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A long-time professor of history at Stanford University, the author of a number of fine historical treatises, Page Smith writes as an academic “insider.” He titles his book Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (New York: Viking, c. 1990).

Like D’Souza, Smith focuses on the nation’s elite universities, for he thinks they “set the tone and, in my view, poison the springs of academic life in the United States” (p. 2). They primary fail by substituting research for teaching: the professor has disappeared from the classroom! Though he values research and publication, having himself done a great deal of it, he believes “the vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless” (p. 7).

That’s because “It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale. It is dispiriting; it depresses the whole scholarly enterprise; and, most important of all, it deprives the student of what he or she deserves–the thoughtful and considerate attention of a teacher deeply and unequivocally committed to teaching; in short, it robs the student of an education for which [they] . . . pay a very large sum of money . . .” (p. 7).

Smith provides a context his concerns with the “desert” of today’s university education by making an historical survey of higher education in America. This is an enlightening journey with the guidance of an informed scholar. When, a century ago, elite universities sought to transform themselves into research centers, they suffered two self-inflicted wounds: the Ph.D. fixation and tenure. At that time William James denounced “the Mandarin disease” (his appraisal of the Ph.D. degree) which was a “Teutonic,” un-American import. Smith concurs. It’s not that the Ph.D. is intrinsically noxious, but its research-orientation generally discourages committed teaching.

Good teaching certainly requires constant research–but not of the variety designed for by publication. Smith believes that “the best research and the only research that would be expected of university professors is wide and informed reading in their fields and in related fields. The best teachers are almost invariably the most widely informed, those with the greatest range of interests and the most cultivated minds. That is real research, and that, and that alone, enhances teaching” (p. 179).

Rather than cultivate and reward research and its publication in learned articles and books, universities should encourage teaching. “It can be said unequivocally that good teaching is far more complex, difficult, and demanding than mediocre research,” Smith says (p. 199). Good teaching touches more than the head–the heart too needs awakening and involvement. Beyond the data cranked out by computers, students need persons who openly discuss how one rightly thinks and lives as a moral and spiritual person.

When he evaluates the teaching taking place in American universities, however, Smith grows discouraged. Neither “the social non-sciences” nor “the inhuman humanities” nor the male-hating “women’s studies” programs engender hope for students entering the academic world in the 1990’s. Especially missing, Smith notes, is the truth inscribed by Alfred North Whitehead when he wrote: “The essence of education . . . is that it be religious. . . . A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence” (p. 295).

Along the way Smith often commends small liberal arts colleges for doing what universities so notably fail to do. He commends those Christian colleges which maintain a commitment not only to spiritual principles but to the integrity of academic work as well. (Amazingly, he says, many universities’ graduate programs have been sustained by graduates from small colleges– not by graduates of the universities’ own undergraduate programs).

Killing the Spirit provides an academic counterpart to D’Souza’s more journalistic appraisal of higher education. That the two books were published at virtually the same time by such disparate anthers validates some of their contentions. Smith’s study shines by placing the discussion in a meaningful historical context, composed by a veteran of the system he critiques.

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Thirty years ago an English historian/sociologist, Christopher Dawson, published The Crisis of Western Education (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1965). It deserves recurrent consideration, in part because of its clearly Christian convictions.

Half of the book, Part One, details “the history of liberal education in the West” and provides a highly instructive delineation of developments basic to higher education in Western Culture. Initially, the “liberal education” which took root in Hellenism largely focused on “the art of speech and persuasion, an exact knowledge of the value of words and an understanding of the laws of thought and the rules of logic” (p. 10). It was a great achievement, lacking only “its final spiritual goal,” which Christianity supplied.

Both Eastern (e.g. the Cappadocians) and Western Church Fathers blended Hellenism’s “liberal arts” with Christian theology, creating distinctive educational programs. In the Latin-speaking West, following the conversion of the many Germanic “barbarians” who populated the area, universities as well as Gothic cathedrals accompanied the “rise of vernacular culture” in the High Middle Ages. It was a vigorous intellectual epoch. providing first rate educational programs saturated with Christian principles and objectives. Though medieval “scholasticism” is often disparaged by modern critics, in its own era it was fresh and innovative, capable of challenging and captivating some of the best minds the world has known.

Subsequent developments in the Renaissance and Reformation significantly altered the Medieval synthesis, but it took the eighteenth century Enlightenment to shatter it. “Thus the combination of Cartesian rationalism, Newtonian physics and Lockian empiricism produced a highly explosive compound which detonated in the second half of the eighteenth century and almost destroyed the traditional threefold order of Christendom–Church and State and Study” (p. 47). This revolution of the mind antedated and then sustained the political and industrial revolutions which have shaped the modern world, a world lacking many Christian components.

During the past two centuries educational programs have increasingly served national, industrial, secular interests. In the United States, despite early efforts to synthesize education and religion in the old English tradition, schools influenced by men such as Horace Mann, who disliked religious education and championed “state control and public support,” remodeled themselves according to the German pattern, and stressed “democratic moral values and the ideals of national patriotism rather than any religious doctrine or ethos” (p. 67). Such tendencies clearly distinguished the thought of Lester Frank Ward and John Dewey, who so influenced American education in this century.

Consequently, whether studying Europe or America, “the crisis of Western education” looms large. So in Part Two of the book Dawson addresses “the situation of Christian education in the modern world.” Insofar as the West developed under the inspiration of Christian teaching, he argues its future depends upon a recovery of the educational philosophy which shaped Western Christian Culture. Only by understanding the spiritual principles which birthed our civilization, only by resurrecting those truths which have undergirded great cultural achievements, can we preserve “civilization.” There’s an open door of opportunity, Dawson thinks, for “the old domination of classical humanism has passed away, and nothing has taken its place except the scientific specialisms which do not provide complete intellectual education, and rather tend to disintegrate into technologies” (p. 107).

Rather than floating with the disintegrating flood of secular education, Dawson calls for Christian colleges to reinstate an authentic liberal arts curriculum, rejecting the temptation to tolerate a “growing number of subjects until it becomes an amorphous collection of alternative courses” (p. 109). Instead, Christians should study Christian Culture. “I believe,” he says, “that the study of Christian culture is the missing link which it is essential to supply if the tradition of Western education and Western culture is to survive, for it is only through this study that we can understand how Western culture came to exist and what are the essential values for which it stands” (p. 110).

An “integrative principle” which blends history, theology, and culture lies latent within the Christian tradition. For “Christian culture is the periphery of the circle which has its center in the incarnation and the faith of the Church and the lives of the saints” (p. 113).

In Part Three, “western man and the technological order,” Dawson focuses on a two-flanged modern “predicament”: first, the secularization in the West, whereby modernity “has become a closed world and has lost all contact with the higher world of spiritual reality” (p. 142), and second, the anti-Western revolt of much of the world.

To rightly respond to this challenge, “there is an apostolate of study as well as an apostolate of action and of prayer” (p. 142). Amidst a secularized society whose educational programs deliberately ignore spirituality, Dawson insists that “above all, it is necessary for Western man to recover the use of his higher spiritual faculties–his powers of contemplation–which have become atrophied by centuries of neglect during which the mind and will of Western man has concentrated on the conquest of power–political, economic and technological” (p. 162).

In response, Christian scholars need to tap into and open up “the divine process of spiritual restoration and reintegration which finds its center in the Incarnation and its orbit in the Christian faith” (p. 143). The antidote to an anthropocentric secularity is a theocentric Christianity. “We may not be able to build cathedrals like the Catholics of the thirteenth century, or write epics like Dante,” he admits, “but we can all do something to make man conscious of the existence of religious truth and the relevance of Catholic thought, and to let the light into the dark world of a closed secularist culture” (p. 144).

Despite a title which might make it purely topical, since “crises” come and go, The Crisis of Western Education has enduring relevance, for the “crisis” endures. Dawson’s treatise is wise as well as learned, practical as well as academic. It is one of the finest avowedly Christian educational treatises written in this century.

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Parker Palmer’s To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper & Row, c. 1983), is one of the finest recent works of Christian educational philosophy. He writes out of a Quaker background, but his views are remarkably compatible with Wesleyan theology.

Palmer’s especially concerned about the split between head and heart in much of today’s education. Single-minded cultivation of the mind, ignoring the heart, shortchanges students. For “the mind’s vision excludes the heart, but the heart’s vision can include the mind” (p. xii).

We best know what we most love. There is, for sure, a kind of “knowing” which comes through critical analysis or detached curiosity. This is the concern of most secular educators. But our spiritual traditions illustrate another kind of knowing, the knowledge which filters through compassion and love, seeking warm relationships with other beings.

This kind of knowing leads through personal humility to openness before the truth. We don’t so much track down truth as allow ourselves to be cornered and illuminated by it. Truth needs real “professors”–not functionaries cranking out data with super-computers but, as the word originally meant, teachers who “profess a faith.” “The true professor,” Palmer believes, “is one who affirms a transcendent center of truth, a center that lies beyond our contriving, that enters history through the lives of those who profess it and brings us into community with each other and the world” (p. 113). Such professors teach out of a spirituality shaped in solitude and informed by prayer.

“Once we have been to the depths of prayer,” Palmer concludes, “we can begin to know as we are known. Our prideful knowledge, with which we divide and conquer and destroy the world, is humbled. Now it becomes a knowledge that draws us into faithful relationship with all of life. In prayer we find the ultimate space in which to practice obedience to the truth, the space created by that Spirit who keeps troth with us all” (p. 125).

Amen . . . and Amen!