Another college semester is ending. Students are hustling around, trying to finish final papers and prepare for exams. Soon there will be plenty of grading to do. But right now I find myself looking back and wondering. What does a college education really amount to in our day and age?
I am not thinking about the professional value of a college degree or a cost-benefit analysis of education. In general, I am entirely acquiescent to the fact that nearly all college students seek degrees in order to receive a credential that has value in the marketplace. Colleges and universities may fail in many ways, but in the main all the testing and applying does a good job sorting students by aptitude, achievement, and inherited cultural values. The end result: a pretty clear picture of winners and losers in twenty-first century American societywhich is why the kids keep coming, and parents keep paying.
Nor do I find myself all that concerned about the academic quality of undergraduate education, or the rise in plagiarism, or the tendency of a legalistic, corporate mentality to dominate academic administration. The problems are real, but many have offered astute analysis.
Instead, I find myself questioning our approachmy approachto education. I wonder not so much about what we teach as how. I worry about the spiritual outlook presently encouraged by higher education. Do we (often unwittingly, and sometimes contrary to our conscious intentions) promise truth without love?
After teaching for twenty years, I can report that the phrase that can unite otherwise fractious faculties is “critical thinking.” Quite often the invocation of “critical thinking” is meant simply to suggest an ancient and honorable educational goal: the creation in students of a nuanced intellectual mentality, one both warm with desire for truth and cool with careful deliberation. The dialogues of Plato encourage this combination. So does the scholastic method perfected by St. Thomas. In his Summa, the Angelic Doctor carefully chooses objections to his own position in order to bring the truth into sharper focus. His students are asked to entertain what is false. They must delay the impulse to rush to a direct and unopposed affirmation of truthand they do so in order to sharpen and heighten their perception of what makes the correct view the true view.
We do not, however, live in ancient Athens or medieval Paris. “Critical thinking” has a contemporary meaning that does not clear the way forward to deeper convictions. Instead, the moment of seeing falsehood has become the goal and summit of the intellectual life. One does no so much aspire to critical thinking as critical theory.
For example, when I was a college student, critical theory meant the Marxist analysis of the Frankfurt School. Very few people believed in Marxist claims about history, economics, and politics. In fact, figures such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were popular precisely because they were “critical Marxists” rather than the dogmatic sort. They offered little in the way of prescription, and they demurred from the grandiose claims about historical progress that makes Marx so comical today. Their contribution was entirely critical. They used a refined version of Marxist categories in order to uncover and expose the oppressive and de-humanizing dynamics of social life.
The same could be said for the role of Freud and Nietzsche in the ecosystem of late twentieth century intellectual culture. There was something very exciting about being eighteen or nineteen and discovering that what seemed like refined cultural sensibilities were, in fact, the excrescences of primitive psychological processes. A person of profound self-discipline is “anal,” and lofty ideals of moral self-sacrifice are actually carefully crafted instruments of power and self-assertion. Or so a dash of Freud and a spoonful of Nietzsche suggested to our young minds.
Paul Riceour once dubbed Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud the “masters of suspicion.” Their stars may have waned in recent decades (though not Nietzsche’s), but the larger role of suspicion has most definitely waxed. Some form of critical theory has become the overriding goal of almost all humanistic study these days. We do not so much read Aristotle or Aquinas or Jane Austen as take their ideas and expressions as instances of a patriarchal culture, instantiations of power-relations, rhetorically coded expressions of class-relations, and so forth. Critical thinking really means cultural studies.
Many have pointed out the gray ideological homogeneity of what passes for critical theory. David Horowitz has amply chronicled the rigidity and intolerance of the contemporary professoriate. Others have noticed that the preening theoretical vocabularies of contemporary cultural analysts tend toward rhetoric rather than argument. Back when deconstruction was the rage, John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of the gimcrack posturing that was being passed off as profound argument.
Yet endless theoretical elaborations of suspicion remain a growth industry all the same. “Truths are fictions whose fictionality has been forgotten”it continues to be said in a thousand different ways. The reason, I think, is simple. Critical theory plays a significant and important role in contemporary society: it de-mystifies and de-legitimates inherited beliefs. It is not, as some critics would like to think, simply Leftist ideology. Nor is it nonsense dressed up in fancy French words. These days critical theory is an intellectual project, the main goal of which is to show that conventional ways of thinking are hopelessly naïve, if not malign and corrupt. It is a deck-clearing operationnot to prepare students for truth, but to prepare them for life without truths.
Pope Benedict has called this mode of pedagogy a dictatorship of relativism. It is, of course, a soft tyranny. Nobody is imprisoning college students for having convictions. The dominant intellectual regime is satisfied with two basic strategies: continuous assault and a starvation diet. We take apart the belief-systems of adolescents with our multi-faceted and powerful modes of critical analysisand we give them next to nothing substantive to believe.
Indeed, in the most progressive educational environments, we satisfy the desire for truth with critical theory itself, which is why it plays such an important role in contemporary higher education. The ability to probe beneath the surfaces of language and culture to show how they produce and manipulate beliefs becomes the sine qua non of the well-educated person. One is not wise in the sense of knowing how to live. One is critically astute and undeceivedand quite superior in knowing how others are in the grip of ideologies.
For a long time I puzzled over this image of the well-educated person, especially because so many of the men and women I teach with are actually strongly motivated by a love of truth. Slowly, however, I have come to realize that we tend to teach as much in response to our fears as our hopes. There are, perhaps, two main and very different intellectual fears. The first is a fear of opportunities squandered, of truths unnecessarily missed. The second is a fear of deception, of falsehoods wrongly cherished.
It is crushingly obvious that the present dictatorship of relativism is profoundly motivated by the second fear. Aside from the natural sciences, we give students little more than training in critique. Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment.
I find myself recalling one of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He urges us to remember that love is just sexual intercourse: “it is the friction of member and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus.” We are to apply this method of critical thinking to all aspects of our lives in order to free ourselves from fanciful notions. “Where things make an impression which is very plausible,” he advises, “uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.” The goal is simple: Humanize yourself by disabusing yourself of illusions.
No philosophy or faith worth its salt endorses a witting love of illusions. It’s the truth we want, not fantasies. Yet, there is something desperate and loveless in the triumph of suspicion. Love falls. As the urgent, searching bridge in the Song of Songs reminds us, love risks the dangers of deception and betrayal. We cannot fall into the embrace of truth by way of cool, dispassionate critique. If we fear that truth will elude us, then we must search and seek with reckless desire.
Much ink has been spilt over the future of Catholic higher education. Endowing new programs and buttressing Catholic identity may help somewhat. But I am more and more convinced that the problems have a broader dimension. A pedagogy dominated by the critical spirit of our age will invariably make faith seem scandalously committed. What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is professor of theology at Creighton University.