The people of the United States spend annually upon higher learning more money, probably, than did all the nations of the world combined, from the foundation of the ancient universities down to the beginning of the Second World War.
In the United States, ever since the Second World War and especially during the past two decades, the lowering of standards for admission and graduation, the notorious disgrace of “grade inflation,” and the loss of order and integration in curricula, are too widely known and regretted for me to need to labor these afflictions here.
Why are this lowering of standards and this loss of intellectual coherence ruinous to higher education? Because higher learning is intended to develop, primarily, a philosophical habit of mind. Genuine higher education is not meant, really, to “create jobs” or to train technicians. Incidentally, higher education does tend to have such results, too, but only as by-products. We stand in danger of forgetting the fundamental aim in the pursuit of the incidentals.
Benefits of the College
The college is intended to confer two sorts of benefits. The first kind of benefit is the improvement of the human person, for the individual’s own sake: offering the way to some wisdom to young men and women, that there may be something beyond getting and spending in their lives.
The second kind of benefit is the preservation and advancement of society, by developing a body or class of young people who will be leaders in many walks of life: scientists, clergymen, political officials or representatives, officers, physicians, lawyers, teachers, industrialists, managers, and all the rest. The college is meant to develop their intellects, assure their competence, and (a point often forgotten today) to help form their characters beneficially. I am not speaking of an elite, for I share T. S. Eliot’s conviction that a deliberately cultivated series of elites tends towards narrowness and arrogance. Rather, I refer to a fairly broad and numerous class of tolerably educated men and women who will leaven the lump of society, in a wide variety of ways. Most of them never will be famous, or powerful on a large scale; but they form that body of well-schooled people essential to any modern society, and especially important to a democratic society.
Now, a higher schooling that is merely technological and skill-oriented—what once would have been called a mechanical education, as opposed to a liberal education—can neither impart wisdom to the person nor supply intellectual and moral leadership to the republic. I do not object to learning a trade—far from it. But a trade is best learnt through apprenticeship, internship, on-the-job training, or technical schools. Except for the learned professions, learning a trade is ill-suited to a college campus. If we convert higher education into technical training mostly, we may find ourselves living in what Irving Babbitt called “a devil’s sabbath of whirling machinery.” For if the philosophical habit of mind is developed nowhere, “the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Let me descend to particulars…
Gadgets and Learning
One of the grave faults of American schooling, at every level, is the eagerness to embrace the newest gadget (mechanical or intellectual) at the expense of the tested tools of learning. Some will remember how, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, we were told that audio-visual aids would supplant the teacher for most purposes. At gigantic public expense, film-projectors, sound systems, and other impedimenta virtually were thrust upon every school. Most of this hardware soon was locked away in closets, where it reposed until obsolete. Some firms made a great deal of money from selling it.
Effective teaching still is done by effective live teachers. “Programmed learning” was another step toward the vaunted Information Revolution. By and large, programmed learning did not work well. A human being talking with other human beings, and an antiquated tool called a book, have had more satisfactory results as far as genuine development of young intellects is concerned. Television certainly worked a revolution. But does anyone still maintain that the boob-tube has improved the minds of the young? Certainly, television opened the way for an even fuller Information Revolution. The apologists for television used to tell us that their darling has moulded the minds of “the best informed generation in the history of America.” Also, it has moulded the minds of the most ignorant generation in America, if we are to judge by the much-applauded recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk.” As a witty friend of mine says, “This is the bird-brained generation.” He does not mean that young people have brains the size of birds; instead, that like birds, boys and girls flit from flower to flower, watching the flickering screen, never settling long enough to learn anything important.
For information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.
Aye, where is the knowledge we have lost in information—not to mention the wisdom? What the college used to endeavor to impart was not miscellaneous information, a random accumulation of facts, but an integrated and ordered body of knowledge that would develop the philosophical habit of mind—from which cast of mind one might find the way to wisdom of many sorts.
Doubtless the development of computers will confer various material benefits upon us. But as far as genuine education goes, the computer and its Informational Society may amount to a blight. They seem calculated to enfeeble the individual reason and make most of us dependent upon an elite of computer programmers (at the higher level of the Informational Society, I mean); they may develop into vigorous enemies of the philosophical habit of mind.
An Overwhelming Mass of Miscellaneous Information
Now doubtless it always has been desirable for more Americans to know about affairs abroad; it is especially desirable today. But information scarcely is lacking already. Are there no newspapers, popular magazines, serious periodicals, radios, television sets, teachers? The mass of miscellaneous information thrust upon us already is overwhelming and dismaying. What we need is not more information; what we require, as a public, is the ability to discriminate and integrate that mass of information, and to reflect upon it.
For thirteen years, I was a syndicated newspaper columnist. I found it quite impossible, though I was paid for the work, to gather and integrate all the information about everything that happened everywhere. I did not even learn to “understand Africa,” though I traveled there and read many serious books and articles about that continent.
Simple “speeding up” of the deluge of information cannot be of help to us: for already information rushes upon us daily with a terrible velocity that the average man and woman, or even skilled journalist, cannot endure. How many newspapers are we to read, how many books on current affairs are we to absorb, how many lectures are we to hear?
But possibly what the evangels of the Informational Society have in mind is this: to so select and pre-digest the information that the public will receive such facts and opinions as the elite of the Informational Society think it well they should receive. Already we are subjected to a mild dose of this treatment by the pundits of television. It would be an exaggeration, and impolite, to call such arrangement and distribution of information “brainwashing.” Yet this facile delivery of allegedly accurate information may be ominous for the American democracy. Big Brother will inform us. We are four months away from 1984.
The enthusiasts for the Informational Society may be found everywhere—even, or perhaps especially, in the staff of the federal Department of Education. Members of that staff inserted belligerent praise of “computer science” in the Report of the Commission on Excellence in Education; they even made that alleged science one of their Five New Basics, commended to every school, along with English,mathematics, science, and social studies. (These latter basics do not seem particularly new to me.) Here is the Report’s paragraph on New Basic 5:
The teaching of computer science in high school should equip graduates to: (a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device; (b) use the computer in the study of the other basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and (c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies.
There is no more reason to object to learning how to use a computer in school, or at home, than there is to object to learning how to use a typewriter in school or at home. But are we to elevate computer operation and apprehension to a level equivalent with all the genuine sciences, which are lumped together as Basic 3?
Drying up the Springs of Scientific Imagination
The development of electronic computers results from the genuine sciences of physics and mathematics. If we are to be masters of the computer, rather than its subjects, we need to understand physics and mathematics. Otherwise we are passive vessels, at best skilled operatives. And, if facility with operating computers tends to be emphasized at the expense of serious study of physics and mathematics, the springs of the scientific imagination gradually may dry up. This zeal for making “computer science” compulsory for practically everybody is rather as if, when Morse invented the telegraph, every school had been urged to devote a large part of its time and funds to teaching young people to be telegraphers. Is not the computer business, and industry in general, capable of instructing its own technicians?
Nevertheless, various educational institutions already have proclaimed their fealty to Holy Computer, including at least one which has made the completion of a course in computer science a requirement for graduation. I am not aware that this institution requires all undergraduates to study physics or the higher forms of mathematics. “Relevance” is all—even when it is irrelevant to a philosophical habit of mind.
So let us drop some grains of salt into the Informational Society stew. Young people cannot come to “understand” other societies through barrages of fact. To acquire some tolerable knowledge of Europe and Asia and Africa and the Americas, it remains necessary—more necessary than in yesteryear—to study seriously the disciplines of history, geography, politics, anthropology, and economics; also it is highly important to gain a knowledge of literatures that cannot be conveyed by electronic computers. Such integrated knowledge cannot be obtained in a brief time. But such are the limits of human understanding.
The Restoration of Learning
One thing to remember, then, in discussing what higher education should do for people in the dawning years, is that waves of technological innovation commonly carry in a mass of flotsam and jetsam. A disagreeable mass of educational flotsam and jetsam was flung upon the beaches of academe by the ideological tempests of the 1960’s and the 1970’s. At college and university, we are only beginning to recover from the damage done to the philosophical habit of mind by that storm. The gentlefolk and scholars of the academy would be highly imprudent if they should assist in fresh devastation by selling gadgetry above intellectual discipline.
What the good college will essay, in the remaining years of this century and the early decades of the next, is the restoration of learning. We may hope to educate a good many knowledgeable people, and some wise ones. What we ought to discourage is a schooling that turns out young people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing: people replete with information and unable to digest it. Offer the rising generation a discipline of mind and conscience, ladies and gentlemen; a body of firm knowledge and an enlivened imagination; and if the rising generation does not bless you, at least posterity will. Do that, and we may transcend the Informational Society; we may even achieve a Tolerable Society.
Books by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally presented as a convocation address at Grand Valley State University in 1983. It appeared on The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and appears here with gracious permission.