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The “higher education system” in the United States has metastasized to the point that the body politic will soon be unable to sustain it. Tuition and fees have grown at more than three times the cost of living in the last two decades, outstripping even the rise in the cost of medical care. These enormous costs reflect the burden of a tenured professoriate that is increasingly well paid and decreasingly burdened with identifiable classroom duties. At the same time, the value of the education that it provides is vanishing, even when measured in terms of the financial bottom line. Only a minority of college graduates secures a job that in any sense “requires” a college-educated holder, while total college debt now dwarfs the aggregate of consumer debt and approaches that of all mortgages. At the same time, it is harder and harder to maintain with a straight face that students are—by engaging with pop culture studies, turgid French semiotic theorizing, or left-wing activism—acquiring the intangible and ineffable values of a liberal education, as classically understood. The higher education “bubble” threatens soon to burst, with consequences more calamitous than the recent collapse of the booms in internet companies or high-risk mortgages.

1. Bacon and Rousseau: The Two Towers

It is essential to begin by examining the intellectual roots of the current crisis in higher education. To do so, we can do no better than to turn to the works of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), the great humanist scholar of the last century. Babbitt was a professor of comparative literature at Harvard for forty years. With Paul Elmer More, Babbitt led the movement in American intellectual life known as the New Humanism, a forerunner of the American conservatism of Kirk, Weaver, and Buckley. Babbitt’s 1908 book Literature and the American College is a searing and prescient critique of the progressive movement as it had begun to take hold of American higher education.[1]

We make a grave mistake if we think that the problems of academic gigantism (Russell Kirk’s “Behemoth State University”) began with Sputnik or the G. I. Bill. The spiritual crisis of higher education has roots far deeper, extending back to the very opening of the modern era in seventeenth-century Europe. Babbitt saw Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as typifying the turn from the classical tradition to the modern fascination with technology as power. Thirty-five years after Babbitt’s book, the British philosopher and literary scholar C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)—whose masterpiece on the philosophy of education, The Abolition of Man, appeared in 1943—reached the same conclusion about Bacon’s central role.

Neither Babbitt nor Lewis was in any sense opposed to the knowledge generated by the flowering of the science of nature in the early modern period. They both noted, however, that modern science was (as Lewis put it) “born in an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.”[2] Bacon, the great promoter and propagandist for scientific research as a public enterprise, embodies all that was “unhealthy” and “inauspicious” about that milieu. Bacon asked that Nature be “put to the rack” and forced to reveal her secrets. He recommended that any thought about the ends or purposes of nature (teleology) be relegated to theology; instead, practical men should impose their own wills upon the raw material of nature by better understanding the isolated propensities of the elements and particles making up material things. Lewis sees a striking similarity between Francis Bacon (“the great trumpeter of the new era”) and Marlowe’s Faust. Lewis points out that science and magic were twins, born at the same time and of the same impulse, the unprincipled quest for power in service of unbridled desire. “Knowledge is power,” Bacon declaims.

By displacing the contemplation of essences and final causes from the study of nature, Bacon and his followers ensured the doom of that what Babbitt called the “law for man” and what Lewis called “the Tao,” the basis for objective value, the set of “practical principles known to all men by Reason.”[3] Inevitably, man himself came within the scope of a scientifically disenchanted (and ultimately denatured) “Nature,” a realm of blind forces subject to technical manipulation, in place of the ordered cosmos (both macrocosm and microcosm) of the classical tradition (from Plato and Aristotle to Cicero, Augustine, and the Christian Platonists and Aristotelians of the high Middle Ages). From that point on, Western man was unable to distinguish between ordered and disordered affections. Reason became, as Hume put it, the abject slave of the passions, a technically proficient ability to scratch whatever itches.

Babbitt demonstrates that it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who first grasped the “liberating” potential of the ethical nihilism implicit in Baconian Science. If Nature (including human nature) is blind and dumb, then each individual being is free to follow its own whims, shrugging off the constraints of conventional morality as nothing more than the heavy hand of a dead past. Science has debunked the moralists of the past as superstitious worshippers of a rational and meaningful order thought to predate the emergence of the individual consciousness. Instead, human beings must be “compelled to be free,” taught to treat every felt impulse within as an unquestionable authority, fully realizing Plato’s nightmarish vision of the “democratic soul” in Book VIII of The Republic.

Rousseau proposed a new “morality” of feeling, to replace the dying morality of reasoned self-discipline. Justice and virtue were to be replaced by an amorphous compassion, which subsequent history has revealed to be almost infinitely malleable, producing holocausts and gulags as easily as free dental plans and kindergartens. As Babbitt puts it, “Rousseau confounds the law for man with his own temperament.” To be clear, let me emphasize that Babbitt was no foe of either science or compassion. As he explains, “The more scientific progress and the more social pity the better. Exception can be taken to these things only when they are set up as absolute and all-sufficient in themselves.”[4]

We can best understand the modern university by seeing it as built on the synthesis of these two tendencies, Baconian and Rousseauan. We now justify the hard sciences almost entirely in pragmatic and utilitarian terms, as the incubators of technology, not as observatories from which to behold and contemplate the music of the spheres. In contrast, many in the humanities, as well as most in the new fields of “communications” and “education,” have abandoned the hard road of fact to become the playgrounds of “values.” Since all value is the arbitrary projection and construction of liberated egos, there is no true hierarchy of value to be learned and internalized and to structure the course of learning into a true curriculum. Instead, each professor of the humanities is free to make the classroom into a laboratory of untrammeled fantasy. In both cases, wisdom and right order have been eclipsed by an absolute and unqualified love of “innovation” as such. My own university, the University of Texas, adopted as its motto a few years ago “What starts here changes the world.” No one thinks to ask whether the resulting change is for the better or the worse.

One additional effect of the Bacon-Rousseau synthesis has emerged in the years since Babbitt’s book: the quantifying and physicalizing of research in the humanities and social sciences. The shape of these disciplines in the last fifty years has been increasingly driven by an envy of the rigorous and arcane mathematics of modern physics. Humanists speak more and more about Theory, by which they mean a mélange of pseudoscientific French semiotics and cultural anthropology. Works of literature are treated as mere data for the theoretical gristmill. Consequently, the quality of the work is of no importance: mediocrities are more likely to provide representative samples of the “social processes.”

From such a perspective, the “core curriculum” forms neither a core nor even a curriculum in its classical sense (a well-defined race course). General education consists merely in those few subjects (linguistic, mathematical, and methodological) that are of general usefulness. General education is thus a necessary evil, a mere propaedeutic to the student’s inevitable specialization.

Babbitt is writing near the end of the term of Harvard President Charles William Eliot (president from 1869-1909). Eliot revolutionized higher education, not only at Harvard but also throughout the country, by replacing the set curriculum with the elective system. Babbitt quotes Eliot, embodying the Rousseauist cult of individuality:

A well-instructed youth of eighteen can select for himself a better course of study than any college faculty, or any wise man . . . . Every youth of eighteen is an infinitely complex organization, the duplicate of which neither does nor ever will exist.[5]

Babbitt sardonically comments, “The wisdom of all the ages is to be as naught compared with the inclination of a sophomore.”

Eliot’s elective system at Harvard was in part a curricular consequence of Rousseau’s philosophy. The student is “compelled to be free” by being denied the opportunity to undertake a coherent and well-ordered course of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseau is essentially the resurrection of ancient Greek sophism. Translated into education, the result is what Babbitt calls “the democracy of studies.” The modern university is a mere cafeteria of courses, with no structure or principle of selection. Plato also predicted this outcome in The Laws (819A): schooling as “encyclopedic smattering and miscellaneous experiment.” Babbitt observes that a bachelor’s degree now means “merely that a man has expended a certain number of units of intellectual energy on a list of elective studies that may range from boiler-making to Bulgarian. . . . a question of intellectual volts and amperes and ohms.”[6]

The elective system has been sold to generations of students as a charter of individual autonomy, freeing each student to devise his own education. In practice, the system empowers professors to abandon anything resembling a coherent, student-centered plan of studies, offering in its place whatever narrow and idiosyncratic courses are most convenient to them, from their perspective as producers of original research. This endless quest for novelty drives professors of literature and history off of the customary highways of great works and great deeds and into the hinterland of minor works by second-rate authors, and the minutiae of everyday life in remote times and places. We professors give little or no thought to selecting subjects that elevate and enrich the moral imagination of the student, while giving much thought to subjects that elevate and enrich our own research programmes.

The modern synthesis of Bacon and Rousseau represents a Devil’s bargain: humanists accepted the dominance of the natural sciences and technology in return for a protected role as junior partner, wrapping the naked pursuit of profit with the robes of academic tradition and the artes liberales. In turn, natural scientists protect the humanists from political pressure, freeing them to pursue Rousseauistic liberationism.

This synthesis of scientific and romantic progressivism took hold first in the research universities of Germany in the nineteenth century. Until the early twentieth century, most American colleges continued in the ancient and medieval traditions of the seven liberal arts, with a fixed canon of texts, all in Latin. The liberal arts curriculum was the fruit of twenty-five hundred years of maturation and development, beginning with the ancient schools of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and the Stoics, and continuing with the Romans Cicero, Quintilian, and Cassiodorus, revived in the early Middle Ages by Isidore of Seville and John Scotus Eriugena, and institutionalized by the anonymous founders of the European medieval universities in the twelfth century. Higher learning from late antiquity until the twentieth century was organized by the seven liberal arts as foundation—the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—with philosophy and theology as the capstones. The goal was essentially an ethical one: the formation of the virtues of self-control and prudence. The method was the reading and emulation of a relatively fixed canon of literary classics, works that “embodied the seasoned and matured experience of a multitude of men, extending over a considerable time.” “By innumerable experiments the world slowly winnows out the more essential from the less essential, and so gradually builds up standards of judgment.”[7]

As Russell Kirk noted in his introduction to the 1986 edition of Literature and the American College, “The aim of the old-fangled college education was ethical, the development of moral understanding and humane leadership; but the method was intellectual, the training of mind and conscience through well-defined literary disciplines.”[8] We must not accuse the classical educators of a kind of moral reductionism, as though each reading or exercise had some alteration of character as its immediate object. First of all, the ethical purpose of education was not merely moral, in a narrow sense. The classical virtues included both the intellectual (wisdom, prudence, and understanding) and the moral (fortitude, temperance, and justice). Education aimed at the natural perfection of the whole human being, with the development of philosophical insight and aesthetic appreciation valued as ends in themselves.

Second, the classical tradition recognized that the contributions of education to morality were largely indirect and ancillary. As Aristotle stipulated, the study of ethics can do no good to one whose sentiments and habits have not been well formed by a good up-bringing. John Henry Newman cautioned against identifying the natural virtues of the well-educated “gentleman” with true saintliness, while embracing the importance of liberal discipline as a salutary habit of mind, characterized by “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.”[9] In addition, a liberal education is needed to elevate those childhood habits of good conduct presupposed by Aristotle’s method, infusing them with an articulate understanding of the human telos to which they are ordered.

We began to abandon all this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as American progressives started to import the increasingly positivistic German model, most prominently at Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and Harvard. The transformation of American higher education was completed under the influence of the post-war G.I. Bill and the explosion of scientific research in the Sputnik era. By themselves, these two social programs need not have accelerated the shift from small liberal arts colleges to gargantuan state universities, but the existing land-grant universities were better able to scale up their operations to absorb the swelling numbers of students.[10] As a result, most professors today (whether inside or outside the humanities) have no concept of what liberal education is. Neither they nor their teachers were liberally educated.

2. The Corruption of Higher Education

Our system of higher education might be quite harmless, for all that. It no longer offers liberal education, but we might hope that at least it does a decent job of vocational training. However, once the academy was severed from its classical roots, it lacked the moral and epistemological foundations needed even for its base, Baconian aims. Technical and economic progress depends, not just on cleverness, but also on character: self-discipline and wisdom. As G. K. Chesterton observed, the trouble with mere pragmatism is that it doesn’t work. In the last twenty years we’ve begun to see the inevitable unraveling of academic pragmatism.

In short, the modern academy is morally depraved. It has become perhaps the most morally corrupt segment of our society, and this for two reasons:

1. The absence of accountability to anyone or anything. In the shift from classical liberal education to the Bacon/Rousseau model of “higher education,” the professoriate claimed the right to be immune from outside control or supervision. The ideal of “academic freedom” replaced control by alumni, trustees, church authorities, and other representatives of the wider community.

2. Exploitation of a new academic underclass, due to the separation of professional rewards and undergraduate teaching. We have a two-class system: a privileged, tenure-track bourgeoisie and an exploited academic proletariate (adjuncts, graduate students, and lecturers). Ironically, the place in our society to which the academy’s Marxist theory may actually apply the most is the academy itself.

Universities are prestige factories. It is in the admissions office, and not in the classroom, that most of the value of the B.A. is generated. Once a student is in, all he has to do is spend four to six years jumping through a series of arbitrary and undemanding hoops in order to claim a prestigious credential. What he actually learns or doesn’t learn during that period is irrelevant. There is a complete disjunction between the real business of the university (viz., creating and maintaining prestige) and the teaching of undergraduates.

Why is the lack of accountability so morally corrosive? Professors do not think of themselves as servants of their students or their communities. This creates a culture of entitlement among the faculty, fueled by resentment of bourgeois wealth. Why, the pampered professor wonders, do mere car dealers and other small businessmen earn more than I do?

In the classical model, there was indeed hierarchy: teachers over students, master-teachers over apprentices. However, professors did not see themselves as morally or spiritually superior to their college’s graduates. The Bacon-Rousseau model changes all this. For Baconians, professors are the creators of new knowledge. For Rousseauans, the academic is a secular saint, the paradigm of spiritual and intellectual freedom, in contrast to the average citizen, who is enslaved to social conventions.

In the Bacon-Rousseau model, teaching of undergraduate students serves two purposes: (1) justifying the input of resources into academic research, and (2) recruiting the researchers of the future. The vast majority of students are merely fiscal cannon fodder, units to be processed and cashed in, in support of the higher calling of scientific research and spiritual liberation.

Of course, it is impossible for universities to give no attention to the demands of undergraduates. In place of education, the modern university offers four to six years of much fun and entertainment, with increasingly luxurious dorms, four-star eateries, swimming pools and gymnasia that would be the envy of professional sports teams. Many classroom teachers have joined the ranks of this entertainment medium, a transformation propelled by increased reliance on student evaluation of teachers. The results are predictable: falling standards, accelerating grade inflation, ever lighter workloads. This means the abolition of the ancient hierarchy of teachers and students: teachers are now afraid of their students and are anxious to gratify their every desire.

You will have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned political correctness. The leftist ideology of the politically correct serves to rationalize a corrupt system. Postmodern and multicultural philosophies justify the jettisoning of the classics of the past, making room for whatever meaningless minutiae form the focus of each professor’s research agenda.

At the same time, political correctness shows that human nature abhors a spiritual vacuum. The postmodern English scholar Stanley Fish has rightly expressed skepticism about the revolutionary aspirations of the politically correct left.[11] In its place, Fish recommends that scholarly communities should seek to do merely academic work, whose quality is determined by the group’s own internal standard, in a kind of group solipsism. However, Fish’s deflationary vision of scholarly communities with no purpose beyond reproducing themselves and their parochial standards offers no transcendent meaning to today’s scholar. As G. K. Chesterton noted, one of our primary needs as human beings is to be more than pragmatic.[12] Liberationist philosophies bring quasi-spiritual meaning to the endless drudgery of academic production. The leftist professor can convince himself that his parsing of sexist syntax or his close reading of 1950s sit-coms represents a road to spiritual and political liberation. The current obsession with sexual perversity and libertinism kills two birds with one stone: it is titillating to undergraduates while offering the modern Rousseauistic Puritan an outlet for his fanatical pursuit of salvation through liberation from sexual restraints.

3. Beer and Circuses

The collapse of standards generates an inordinate amount of free time for students, liberated from the “burden” of studying (reading and writing), as documented by the recent book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.[13] The authors found that 32 percent of the students they studied did not take any courses with forty pages or more of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take a single course in which they wrote more than twenty pages during the semester. The authors also report that students spend an average of only thirteen hours per week studying—50 percent less than a few decades ago, and much of that minimal studying occurs in fashionable but inefficient group settings.

This free time, when combined with sexual liberationism, preached both in the classroom and through student services, has created the hook-up culture of mandatory promiscuity, yet another instance of students’ being “compelled to be free.” The result is non-stop partying, with all of the attendant abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and other recreational drugs. Addiction to pornography and video games has also taken hold, especially among male students. Colleges have become Club Med-like resorts, encouraging hedonism, sloth, inflated expectations, and a climate of ungrounded entitlement.

The college, bluntly put, has replaced in loco parentis with in loco diabolus. I cannot imagine a system that would be more effective than the modern university at undermining character and disabling students from the tasks of vocation, marriage, family, and citizenship.

4. The Imminent Collapse

Talk of a higher education “bubble” is well justified. The reasonably priced state university degree of even modest quality is no longer available. The reason for the upward cost spiral is easy to find: an arms race for prestige, which is inherently a zero-sum game, driving up the salaries of both administrators and well-published research professors. The rising costs have almost no relation to the quality of instruction.

As a result of the moral degeneration of the university, the Baconian promise of economic prosperity through research and education is increasingly an empty one. Fewer and fewer American students have the self-discipline required even for degrees like engineering, natural science, or accounting, which offer short-term economic benefit. Most so-called research is next to worthless, since its value is defined in self-referential terms: good research in each field is whatever good researchers in that field do (as defined by leading journals and conferences), regardless of any benefit or lack of benefit to the wider community. This self-referential circle means that research in even the hard sciences becomes increasingly political and unrelated to reality.

For individual students, the economic return on an American college degree is in free fall. Fewer than 30 percent of graduates secure a job that “requires” a college degree (in any sense). Median salary of college graduates last year: $27,000 a year. Average debt burden: $21,000. As a result, we have begun to see the emergence of the Uncollege movement, with a growing number of young people joining the ranks of the higher education refuseniks, following in the footsteps of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Michael Zuckerburg.

5. What Needs to be Done

Let us look at the long-term view, and let us free ourselves to imagine the best possible future.

There are in fact some encouraging signs: namely, the proliferation in recent years of great-books programs, some with strong emphasis on classical languages (Latin, Greek). These are found mostly at religious institutions, both Protestant and Catholic, including Thomas Aquinas College, New Saint Andrews College, Wyoming Catholic College, C. S. Lewis College, the College of Saint Thomas More, Ignatius-Angelicum, and over thirty other colleges and programs. This trend needs to be accelerated. Some steps that might help:

1. Disassemble the existing system. De-fund state universities. Instead award scholarships for academic merit that are usable at private, religious, and for-profit colleges, and give tax deductions for tuition.

2. Eliminate or ignore accreditation. The regional accrediting bodies are little more than higher-education cartels, ensuring that students can go to any college they like so long as they are all the same. They discourage competition and are sustained by the power of the federal government, which denies all federal aid to students in non-accredited institutions. We should replace “official” accreditation with private companies that provide impartial, third-party assessments, as Moody’s or Standard and Poors does for the bond market.

3. Encourage the development of small residential colleges that collaborate through the Internet. We need more collaborative networking among existing schools and programs and more encouragement of the formation of new ones. Low overhead: nothing but teachers and students.

In the medium term, there are several things that could be done to mitigate to some extent the damage done by the present system:

1. Create disinterested, double-blind evaluation of student learning. Require state universities to offer benchmark exit exams to their graduating students (like the final degree exams at British universities), with individual results appearing on transcripts and with comparative statistics available to the public. These results can be used to measure the value added by instructors and courses to different cohorts of students. The exam standards, old exam questions, and grading rubrics should be made public. In addition, we can supplement local exams with standardized benchmarks, like GRE Subject exams or the College Learning Assessment, once again making results public.

2. Abolish distribution requirements, the pseudo core curriculum of the present system, and replace them with a true core curriculum. This would eliminate most of the politically correct hurdles students face: requirements in multiculturalism, social justice and global learning, for example. Instead, require all undergraduate students, regardless of intended career path, to immerse themselves in a well-coordinated sequence of courses focusing, as Matthew Arnold recommended, on “the best which has been thought and said,” together with the best that has been done in the history of our civilization. The fostering of the pursuit of wisdom by individual colleges and universities could be encouraged and supplemented by establishing a core curriculum foundation, a national, non-profit society that awards liberal education certificates to students based on coursework, special exams, interviews, and submitted work.

3. Decentralize power. Break the monopoly of faculty senates and administrators.

(a) Tie funding of departments to number of students taught (within the limits of a grading curve). Programs that succeed in attracting more students, while maintaining high standards, should be rewarded with more resources. The bulk of the power of deans and presidents is the power to shift resources to politically favored programs, like ethnic and gender studies. Real competition would enable academic entrepreneurs to create new, student-centered programs, including sequences of courses focusing on the Western canon. In addition, permit departments to compete for students by discounting their tuition rates, creating an intra-university free market, thereby applying some real restraint to the upward spiral of costs.

(b) Introduce “charter colleges’: permitting free associations of scholars to offer both courses and bachelor’s degrees without requiring faculty senate and administrator approval.

(c) Following the model of Oxford and Cambridge, break each Behemoth State University into a cluster of independent colleges, each with no more than 2,000 students, and each offering the full array of the liberal arts and sciences to undergraduates.

4. Abolish or reform the Ph.D. In the liberal arts, replace the Ph.D. with the M.A., or a new doctorate in Liberal Arts, dropping the requirement of “original research.” Instead, require the doctoral candidate to prepare and deliver a series of lectures on classic texts, demonstrating a mastery of understanding, reflection, and articulation.

5. Ban the use of temporary, part-time, and non-tenure-track teachers.

Eliminate the distinction between tenure-track and non-tenure-track instructors. Give everyone who has the responsibility for teaching students equal status in departmental and college decisions. Every instructor should be equally eligible for tenure: hired with a presumption of permanence, but with the real possibility of being discharged for cause.

6. The Power of the System to Resist Change

Our higher education industry is powerless to educate, and the vast majority of its so-called research is worthless, ignored even by the specialists who generate it (as Mark Bauerlein at Emory has demonstrated). However, there is one thing that the system does to perfection: defend itself against political pressures to change. Universities have assembled the most impressive parallelogram of political forces in modern history. Here is a partial list of their strategic assets, both tangible and intangible:

1. Deeply ingrained habits within the public at large, and among political and business leaders, of deference to supposed scientific experts and humanistic elites (both Baconian and Rousseauistic).

2. The totemistic loyalty of vast alumni networks to athletic teams and symbols, sustained by the energy of nostalgia for lost youth.

3. The claims of the “research university” to be engines of scientific progress and economic growth, endlessly and uncritically repeated by media and the press, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Supposedly great research universities in Berkeley or Ann Arbor have done nothing to prevent the financial meltdown of California and Michigan; indeed, they are arguably crucial contributing factors, having undermined the remnants of classical and Christian culture.

4. Statistically fallacious argument about the economic value of a college education (the mythical $1 million premium in lifetime earnings), which is associated in the public’s mind (without statistical basis) with the supposed “quality” of one’s university, as defined by prestige and selectivity.

5. The sunk-costs fallacy: the millions of Americans who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their own college education and that of their children find it painful to take seriously the possibility that this investment was wasted.

6. Well-oiled public relations machinery, including alumni organizations, publications, and lobbying offices, as well as a revolving door between academia, politics, and media that ensures an endless supply of uncritically deferential press and sycophantic political “leaders.”

7. Toward an Effective Counter-Strategy

To counter the above-listed forces of inertia will require strategic use of information and alternative media to convince the public that the system is broken. To reprise, we must emphasize the following five points:

1. The system is expensive and wasteful, with billions of dollars in unjust privilege for those at the top of the hierarchy.

2. Students are not intellectually challenged, improved.

3. Character and citizenship are undermined rather than strengthened.

4. Most research is useless by any objective measure.

5. College degrees have been oversold on economic grounds. For most students, there is a poor return on the investment of both funds and time.

In closing, let me return to the long-run perspective. Since the higher education system is no longer up to the task of perpetuating our Western culture, other means must be found. Fortunately, information technology is a great generator of means, if we can summon the will and find the discipline to use it rightly. The whole of classical literature is available on web sites like the Perseus project (both in the original languages and in translation). The study of Latin in secondary schools has been experiencing a revival in recent years. Great Books societies are forming across the country. Many of the new colleges with classical curricula offer courses through the Internet, with ample opportunities to interact with tutors and small seminars.

In order to rebuild our foundations, we need to create a national society or collegium of scholars, backed by the resources of far-sighted philanthropists. The society would offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the classics of Western civilization, based on a battery of formal examinations and interviews. We would invite the graduates of traditional colleges and Internet universities, along with those who are self-taught or who have acquired their education through informal networks and private tutors, to seek these formal qualifications. The new degrees soon might gain national recognition as a gold standard of intellectual and aesthetic excellence, shaping the national conversation and encouraging the further growth of classical education at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. We must realize in our time the sort of synthesis of unity and plurality that the founders of the great medieval universities achieved, with many small platoons of sanity cooperating in a large-scale campaign that gains widespread notice and response.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Humanitas (Volume XXIV, Nos. 1 and 2).


1. Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute, 1986).

2. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 1974), 78.

3. Ibid., 32.

4. Babbitt, Literature and the American College, 105.

5. Eliot, Educational Reform, 132, 133, quoted in Babbitt, Literature, 96.

6. Babbitt, Literature., 123.

7. Ibid., 114-15.

8. Russell Kirk, “Introduction,” in Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (Washington DC: National Humanities Institute, 1986), 63.

9. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (London: 1853).

10. According to 120 Years of Higher Education: A Statistical Portrait, by Thomas D. Snyder (National Center for Education Statistics, Washington: 1993), there were more students in private colleges than public in 1943 (584,000 in private vs. 571,000 in public). By 1948, public colleges surpassed private colleges in enrollment, opening a substantial lead by 1961 (2.56 million vs. 1.58 million). In the three decades from 1961 to 1991, public college enrollment quadrupled, while private college enrollments increased only 70 percent in the same period.

11. Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

12. “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be more than a pragmatist.” G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1909), 64.

13. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

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35 replies to this post
  1. I just found your article and website and I hope to educate myself further by reading much that is available. I need to rehabilitate myself since I was a "victim" of a utilitarian "scientific" education in psychology devoid of any real philosophical basis or foundation in the writings of say Aquinas, etc. I am so happy to have found your site! Now I must go back and read this very thoughtful article thoroughly. Thank you!

  2. I am excited about your article! I only skimmed it and read it quickly, but I do agree with what you say. My older daughter attends University of Dayton. She went to a Catholic grade school and then was home schooled in seventh and eighth grade. She went to a public high school in a well respected school district. Her high school never challenged her. She did the mere minimum amount of work to get by. She really has not done well at Dayton because she has never been challenged academically! She has been exposed to an onslaught of morally offensive ideas and behaviors which I fear may cause her to lose her soul! She has never learned to really think for herself! She has one semester to go. Last week I read one of her papers for an upper level history class and I was appalled at how my daughter writes. She basically doesn't know how to write a paper! My other daughter is a freshman at Ave Maria University. This daughter was home schooled using various classical curriculums. She is thriving at Ave Maria! She is taking Latin. Her Literary Traditions course studies all the classics, such as the Illiad, the Odyseey, Sophocles, etc. She is also taking Western Civilization. She will take three philosophy courses – Nature and Person, Ethics, and Metaphysics. She is learning so much! She is really learning how to express herself. She is learning how to reason. The professors at Ave Maria know her by name. They take an active interest in her. They are truly concerned for her welfare and formation. This is a small affordable school. We live in Columbus, OH and Ave Maria (after scholarships awarded to her) costs the same as Ohio State University! Whereas the University of Dayton now cost about $45,000/yr! And in my estimation, my daughter's pay back from the education she has received at UD certainly will never justify the costs and debt she has incurred! Not to mention the consequences she has suffered regarding her loss of faith and morals! We were duped by UD because they have not provided a liberal arts education for our older daughter. However, we are hopeful and so encouraged with the education our younger daughter is receiving at Ave Maria!

  3. Yep, I can still see the looks of bewilderment and sheer emptiness on my professor's faces when I would challenge, or propose alternative ways of considering ideas in class, based on my natural and nurtured intellect that I was given.

  4. It would be most helpful if these schools offered majors beyond that of Liberal Arts or the eqivalent. They would get alot more students who have to abandon conservative institutions because they lack other majors.

  5. Great article, I agree with all of it! Here's my question: how can those of us who teach the applied sciences (management information systems, in my case) be part of the solution? In the "national society or collegium" model, or in those religious colleges that are going back to the classics, will schools of engineering, medicine, business be totally eliminated? Should we have separate institutions for the liberal education and the practical sciences? Or do you foresee colleges offering, say, a 2-3 year classical education followed by a 2-3 year "professional" education in one degree?

  6. I am appalled by the atrocities that have been committed by Ivory Tower Raubritters. From the tops of their castle towers they spot unsuspecting wayfarers and send out their intellectual thugs to intellectually beat and rob these poor wayfarers, strip them of their wealth, and then leave them for dead as they move on to their next victims. They usually leave behind a trail of sodomized minds that they have discarded after they have no more use for them. Their intellectual viciousness and lust for blood rivals the viciousness and blood lust of the Raubritters of the Holy Roman Empire. They are a menace throughout the country, these despoilers of the youth whose lust for power and prestige knows no limits. It is time for their vile misdeeds to come to an end.

  7. I was fortunate enough to go to Columbia University for my undergraduate work in the 1960s, where for the first 2 years we were reading many of the classics in economics, literature, science, etc., which gave me a good foundation for my later studies. Interestingly enough, a few years ago (10 or when?), the most Unparty School was the University of Chicago, where the administration had to lock the library at certain times because the students were spending too much time studying?

  8. Good article. Accreditation is an insider racket and should be eliminated for undergrad colleges. It accomplishes nothing constructive. Because it costs millions of dollars, it poses an insurmountable obstacle to independent churches and communities setting up small colleges on their own. Further, it says nothing about the moral and intellectual excellence of the faculty.

    With the internet, and high-quality third-party video courses like those offered by the Teaching Company, college 'home study' is becoming an increasingly viable, if not superior alternative to a four-college. Better still, perhaps we can design a 'hybrid' university that blends self-study, Great Books and traditional teaching to make higher education more universally available, make it better and reduce the criminally high tuitions.

  9. It's hard to see how the arguments made here connect to some of the conclusions drawn.

    For example: the idea that students should be given the freedom to choose the courses they take is roundly mocked, only for the author to suggest a couple of paragraphs later that departments should be funded according to how many students choose to take their courses, thus creating an "intra-university free market". The very first positive suggestion that is made is to abolish public universities, but if there is an argument for this conclusion in the main text, it is one that the reader is left to puzzle out alone. The main argument made against public universities (from what I can tell) is that they are too large, but the alternative suggestion offered here is highly misleading. Oxford and Cambridge colleges are NOT independent entities "offering the full range of arts and sciences to students". Some teaching does take place at the college level, but (at least at the two Oxbridge colleges I attended) the college is primarily a place to live, eat, and engage in the kind of hedonistic partying the author deplores. For academics, the colleges depend upon a massive university-wide system of lectures and labs. A further point about Oxbridge: as someone who has been through the British-style "final exams", I find the author's enthusiasm for them baffling. I did very well in my finals, so there's no case of sour grapes here, but then I was lucky enough (unlike some of my friends) not to have the flu during the two-week period in which four years of work was assessed.

    One concern of the author's that I share is that the current format of many PhD programs is in some ways at cross-purposes with the aim of producing excellent teachers. The lazy dismissal of research in ethnic and gender studies, however, I found appalling. I do not work in these fields: like the author, I specialize in analytic philosophy. My impression of them (based on the little I have read – given the sweeping nature of the author's criticisms, I assume he must have read very widely in both fields) is that much excellent work is being done, and that students gain a great deal from classes taught by these professors.

    Don't get me wrong: there's a great deal to criticize in the way higher education is currently set up. I just hope we can do better than the suggestions offered here.

  10. I found this a really fascinating look at the state of the university, but like the person above I found some of the conclusions a bit at odds with the arguments. A large amount of scorn is heaped upon programs that emphasize sexual and multicultural diversity, and yet you also call for free-markets that appeal to what students want. Is it so hard to imagine that African-American students would want to take classes in African-American lit, or that the same would be the case with Asian-American students or with lgbt-identified students?

    I also find the valorization of the medieval model to be a bit amusing, as a student of medieval literature. Surely you would consider Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to be among the classics that students should study, and at least on the surface they seem to fit your criteria for moral education, given the emphasis in them on "sentence" and "solaas," but then what are we to do with tales like the Miller's, about a randy clerk who uses his university education to dupe his landlord and sleep with his wife while farting in the face of another would-be suitor? What are we to do with Rabelais and his tales of people drowning in piss? Or what are we to do with Catullus, who famously began one of his poems, "Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo," I will bugger you and fuck your face. These are all great works of literature, which would seem to be excluded from your somewhat idiosyncratic canon.

    For that matter, I find your claims about drinking in the academy to be amusing as well, as examples abound from classical and medieval culture of drunken scholars.

    You even contradict yourself in a matter of sentences, as in: "Encourage the development of small residential colleges that collaborate through the Internet. We need more collaborative networking among existing schools and programs and more encouragement of the formation of new ones. Low overhead: nothing but teachers and students." I think low overhead would be a great goal. Except the model you've outlined would already preclude it. If you have people in small, residential colleges, then you need to have people who run the residential college, and in order to effectively teach through the internet you need to have some pretty sophisticated technical support. I think there's too much administration in universities and too much bureaucracy, but we have to realize that it won't ever be "nothing but teachers and students."

  11. I agree with many of the problems, but the solutions don't match. The solutions seem like conservative pablum: more privatization, tax credits, etc. Moreover, the listed solutions also have a "pie in the sky" feel requiring structural change that is likely to throw out the baby with the bath water.

    Here are my solutions, which are more aimed at the stated problems and are more feasible:

    1. Cut the amount of administrators and administrator pay by, say, 20% (or as much as possible), and cap it such that it increases only with inflation, not at the insane rate it has been.

    2. Cut money spent on non-academic services and non-academic infrastructure, e.g. gymnasiums, sporting teams, swimming pools, fancy student centers, etc.

    3. Cut overspending on new buildings that is designed to compete with other campuses and attract better students with shiny baubles.

    4. Pay lecturers the wage of starting assistant professors but have them teach a lot (they already do) for the pay.

    5. Have tenured and tenure-track professors teach 20% more, especially in the humanities and social sciences. This may result in fewer publications, but so be it. (Using retired and semi-retired faculty in a creative way that honors their teaching ability and intellect without overburdening them with work can help, too.)

    6. Stop competing for the best students by building the shiny baubles referred to in 2 and 3. Tell parents that the quality of education at more expensive schools isn't always better academically or for getting a good job. (The Ivy's can be an exception, but we need to be more honest.) You go to school to educate, not to get a prestigious name. Education is not a competition. It is self-improvement.

    7. Create a 2 and a half year, required core-curriculum that focuses on the classics, philosophy, mathematics, one foreign language, and the hard sciences that requires more argumentative writing. (20 pages per class.)Have strong standards. All universities that don't do this well enough should not be accredited.

    8. Restore state funding for education to pre-recession, Clinton era percentages.

    9. Get rid of many majors. Keep traditional hard sciences (chemistry, physics, biology), a general math major, a general social science major, philosophy, literature, history, etc.

    10. Students should be told what classes to take given their interests and preferred career paths. There should be only a few options. They should continue to learn classics, history, philosophy, math, etc throughout their career.

    11. Require all students to engage in public service to graduate. They can fill out a form, signed by local volunteer services, saying they completed X amount of hours and did an adequate job. (They can and should party, given that life should be fun, but they should also be connected to their community and to the goal of making a stable, healthy life for themselves and others.)

    12. Have all students explain in an oral exam (taken seriously) how they will use their education for good and not just to earn money.

    13. Strip away the degree of anyone convicted of financial fraud or any professional crime. It is a disgrace that some of the best minds get an education from our best schools, but they become moral monsters at Enron or Goldman. We should work to prevent this and are partly responsible for it.

  12. I agree with most of the previous post (3:02pm). I would change a few specifics, though. First, I don't think we should have "tenured and tenure-track professors teach 20% more, especially in the humanities and social sciences." This makes little sense to me since there is serious work to do in these areas. The number of, e.g., ethical problems facing our society that need new research is only growing (bioethics, cloning, world poverty, resource allocation, etc.). Humanities and social science faculty have plenty of work to do in these areas. Second, I would be careful about limiting the number of majors too much. I agree we don't need all the majors we currently have, but a range of subjects is important given the complexity of the modern world. The classics should be central but students still need broad exposure.

  13. In my humble opinion, many of the suggestions made by the commenters above are unfortunately impossible, as they assume power that we as individuals do not have. We are not going to tell Harvard or even our state universities to dramatically change the pay structures of their faculty, etc. Instead I'd like to hear what we as individuals and as the Church can do given that we live in a world where "dark satanic mills of mis-education" exist.

    My suggestion is that some of the smaller Catholic colleges might want to try out a curriculum that blends the classical arts with some more applied sciences. In other words, instead of limiting themselves only to the classics, they might consider offering programs that blend the classics with training in business, engineering, law, medicine, etc. An innovative program might be, for example, 3 years of liberal arts eduction plus 2 years of business/technology/etc, awarding both a bachelor's and master's degree at the end. In this way we deal with the reality that college for most people is about learning job skills (which was not the case in the middle ages) but at the same time guarantee a solid foundation.

    This way would also help you to recruit scholars in the applied sciences to join your project. I, for one, would love to get involved with one of the Catholic colleges in this country, but they only employ faculty in the liberal arts, history, philosophy, etc.

  14. Obviously, I agree with some of the problems with higher education identified here; but your proposals are seem too drastic and unrealistic for my own taste. A more enlightened version of accountability and self discovery is possible within the current
    model of research universities. To be clear, though, changes are needed.

    Take a look at: Rick Cherwitz, "Toward Entrepreneurial Universities for the 21st Century," Stanford Social Innovation Review, March 5, 2012.

  15. Great article in which I would heartedly agree with but I see no hope for change. We live in a Marxist world. Administrators and professors are Marxist. The values of the West have became Marxist. You're a retrograde, reactionary Catholic, a minority.

    In order to do battle, one must have a ray of hope. The place is too far gone, the rot too deep. There is nothing worth saving anymore. Liberals and Marxists are NOT going to "preserve" Western Culture. Haven't you heard that chant at Stanford University? "Hey, Ho, Western Culture has got to go"? Yes, Political Correctness (the term was coined in the Soviet Union in the 1920s), rules. People don't care about their past. It is all about "Hope and Change". The mass of people have become thoroughly Marxized. Even the Church is politically correct.

    It is all going to hell. Let it. Western Culture died in the American/French Revolutions. Thomas Paine saw that. It's done. It's over. It's finished.

  16. Great article in which I would heartedly agree with but I see no hope for change. We live in a Marxist world. Administrators and professors are Marxist. The values of the West have became Marxist. You're a retrograde, reactionary Catholic, a minority.

    In order to do battle, one must have a ray of hope. The place is too far gone, the rot too deep. There is nothing worth saving anymore. Liberals and Marxists are NOT going to "preserve" Western Culture. Haven't you heard that chant at Stanford University? "Hey, Ho, Western Culture has got to go"? Yes, Political Correctness (the term was coined in the Soviet Union in the 1920s), rules. People don't care about their past. It is all about "Hope and Change". The mass of people have become thoroughly Marxized. Even the Church is politically correct.

    It is all going to hell. Let it. Western Culture died in the American/French Revolutions. Thomas Paine saw that. It's done. It's over. It's finished.

  17. What is Political Correctness? I have never seen a definition of the term but I know that it is a 'bad' thing. Is it a matter of "demonstrating a generous spirit" and maintaining a "high standard of civility" in public discourse? In any case I would be happy to be informed

  18. Dear Joe,
    A great question. I would welcome exactly the kind of symbiosis that you describe. A fine foundation in the liberal arts can be acquired in 2-3 years, and with some judicious blending, this could be the basis for a pre-professional education in business, law, or medicine that would help to develop character along with expertise.

  19. Joe,
    A great question. I would welcome a synthesis of the liberal and the pre-professional, along the lines you suggest. Two or three years would be adequate to lay the foundations for a lifelong quest of liberal learning, and with some judicious blending, a four-year program could prepare professionals in law, business or medicine, with an equal attention to character and expertise.

  20. This is hard to know, because universities invariably lump administrators' salaries in with instructors. My guess is that instructors' salaries are at something like 40% of the total. As I noted in this article, these monies are very unequally distributed between the two classes (tenure-track an NTT), with the latter doing most of the teaching (60-70% in most cases, including my own institution).

  21. Some fair points. On the apparent contradiction, one has to take into account what is and is not now feasible at an institutional level. The ideal system would be one with a prescribed curriculum of great works, but that simply isn't possible in most of today's colleges and universities. Thus, the second best option is one that liberates students and instructors to re-create such programs as viable options, and this requires considerable decentralization of power and resources.

  22. Dr. Koons:

    I wish you had highlighted the huge growth in administration compared to faculty.

    "On the administrative side, the ratios of executives to student and
    professional staff to student increased—the latter by 50 percent. In
    1987, except at private research universities, where administrators
    outnumbered tenure-track faculty, colleges had approximately as many
    tenure-track faculty as full-time administrators. By 2008 there were
    more than twice as many administrators as tenure-track faculty at all
    types of institutions."

    You cannot fight a war without boots on the ground skilled infantry so why do some college administrators think they can get high quality higher-education outcomes with fewer "skilled infantry" faculty doing the work of teaching vs. lower paid and lower quality adjunct faculty? Some college administrators would like to replace full time faculty with more part-time adjunct faculty with few benefits. I saw the ratio of administrators to full time faculty grow in the late 1980s and was continuing when I was a financial risk consultant to several state university systems in the mid 2000s. If you dig into the financial statements the numbers are significant. As another Texan said (GW Bush) "Facts are stubborn things." I always follow the money and until this disturbing trend in administrator growth is reversed I don't see much chance for improvement.

  23. Prof. Koons, as a member of the academic underclass with a conservative religious and family background, I am surprised by your claim that "the modern academy…has become perhaps the most morally corrupt segment of our society." I take my own experience in the modern academy to be one of moral growth. Had I gone instead to one of the religious institutions that you praise, I fear that this would have allowed me to rationalize and reinforce my parochial views about homosexuality, gender roles, religion, the environment, and justice.

    Even if we now disagree about where the moral high ground is on these issues, we could agree on much of what you rail against: the “unprincipled quest for power in service of unbridled desire," the "exploitation" of academic underclasses, "arbitrary and undemanding hoops," "sloth", "mandatory promiscuity," the "fanatical pursuit of salvation through liberation from sexual restraints," the tyranny of undergraduate desires for "fun and entertainment," "minimal studying," the "totemistic loyalty of vast alumni networks to athletic teams and symbols," and even "French theorizing" (when it is "turgid" and "pseudoscientific").

    I don’t, however, think that the solution is to model ourselves after the religious institutions you list, or to return to “the contemplation of essences and final causes from the study of nature,” or to increase the teaching of Latin, or to drop the emphasis on original research and to "require the doctoral candidate to prepare and deliver a series of lectures on classic texts," or to seek academic accountability from private philanthropists, church authorities, or the standards set private rating agencies (like what "Standard and Poors does for the bond market"). I wonder to what extent your suggested solutions are geared towards promoting a particular moral and political ideology that is currently at odds with the progressive values common in our universities, rather than towards addressing the broad range of problems that could serve as common ground.

  24. Unfortunately you are right about the Marxist take-over. But as the article suggests, there are some possibilities for academics and other interested (paleo-conservatives)to form a society (collegium) to promote the academic excellence and the moral heritage that is the essence of a university. We can contact sympathetic institutions to provide tuition through internet (as many already do). I will certainly be interested. There should of course be autonomy for institutions though, because I would specifically be interested in a Reformed Christian university for Europeans. Having said this, it is imperative that every culture must have its own institutions in order to build upon their culture. The current Marxist/Babylonian forced integration is evil and destructive.

  25. Yes, such lowly literature as in your examples has no place in civilized discussion (not referring to the quoting as examples as you have), nor in an institution of excellence. It would only serve to degrade students' minds. Jann Schlebusch

  26. Thank you, Professor Koons! Your article is a life ring I can toss to my daughter, a PhD student in Political Science at a large, well known midwestern university. She's in her second year and is beginning to wonder if she is crazy or if the academy is crazy. Thanks to you we have an answer; and although it won't aid her feelings of being surrounded by intellectual lunatics, it will let her know that she's not alone in thinking that they've turned the world upside down.

  27. At the start of each semester, I ask my business students, "Are you here for an education or for a credential?" Unanimously, and without embarrassment or hesitation, they respond, "A credential!" "In this class," I reply, "you will be getting an education, and specifically an education in dialectics, rhetoric, and ethics." (These, btw, are the real skills a business leader must master.) At first, they are shocked and even dismayed. But it doesn't take long for them to become enthusiastic. In fact, my class is rated by students as among the best in their university experience. It turns out, they really haven't rejected the idea of a real education, it's just that no one has ever offered them one.

    As a prudential matter, I am posting this anonymously, which I don't normally do, but you and I have met, Dr. Koons.

  28. I have known for many years that the college degree is not always the way to a productive life. I believe that a two-year degree program would benefit not only the cost to students, but also trim the "excess" that only benefits the university or college. The "tech" schools seem to be flourishing in regards to jobs, while many graduates of the four year institutions seem to be without employment.

  29. I always thought the Canterbury Tales was valuable not for its literary or moral value, but because it is a huge corpus of Middle English, and is of great interest to linguists and anyone studying the history of the English language or anything about life in the Middle Ages.

    So I don't believe it needs to be done away with, just taught in that context, which is how it is often taught anyway.

  30. Good idea, but as to #2 – most of the larger athletic programs in the country are self-funding, and in many cases they actually generate more money for the university rather than draining it.

  31. Many years in higher education suggests to me that none of the solutions here propounded is in the least feasible. Practically, it would make more sense for individual youth to go directly to work, and seek their instruction from individuals with a liberal education–more like a late 19th, early 20th century tutorial system. Failing that, the answer is not great books colleges but great books high schools; from such a base, youth can go forward to work without the debt burden.

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