Is there no hope? The special education section in the May 2008 issue of the New Criterion gave a pretty clear answer. The articles, focusing mostly on the state of higher education, provided something of a (perhaps justified) manifesto for giving up. Sensing this, and having chosen higher education as a career path, I poured a polite measure of whisky to take off the edge.

Roger Kimball (“What Was a Liberal Education?”) kicks the issue off. We are facing, he tells us, “nothing less than the destruction of the fundamental premises that underlie our conception both of liberal education and of a liberal democratic polity.” Whereas Kimball once thought resistance to this dim scenario worthwhile, he has since discovered it to be futile, as “many colleges and universities are so rich that they can afford to cock a snook at parents and alumni.”

University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors (“On the Sadness of Higher Education”) then provides a courageous and ruthlessly fair-minded send-up of contemporary academe, one that is all the more devastating for not glorifying his own experience as a Princeton undergraduate in the early 1960s. Robert L. Paquette (“The World We Have Lost”) gives a disheartening eyewitness account of how a Hamilton College parallel to Princeton’s conservative-friendly James Madison Center was torpedoed by spineless administrators who kowtowed to politically correct forces on campus and on the board of trustees. Following this, Victor Davis Hanson (“The New Learning that Failed”) pounds the modern university with the heavy artillery of long-lost classical principles.

Hope in the future of academia having been dashed, James Piereson (“Liberalism vs. Humanism”) moves in to cut off the past as well. After assessing Anthony T. Kronman’s book Educations’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life , Piereson suggests that the past “offers little in the way of guidance, since we are unlikely very soon to follow the paths of Christian or Classical humanism charted by the likes of Erasmus or Goethe.” Finally, there is Charles Murray’s exposure of hopelessly naïve reform policies (“The Age of Educational Romanticism”), where he parallels George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Soviet economic policy.

The collection of articles in the New Criterion isn’t strictly monolithic. Whereas educational romanticism is condemned by Murray, there’s at least enough of it left in Hanson for him to declare that “if we can read, write, and think well, we can do anything.” Kors takes pains not to glorify the 1960s; Piereson, however, reports Kronman’s estimation that the sixties were “something of a golden age for the American university because it was a time in which the humanities were liberated from religion but not yet subordinated to science and specialization.” But despite such minor differences, the carefully written articles agree on an overall forecast: Higher education has no immediate future, and no recoverable past. In short, Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate ¯“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

I found myself, shall we say, less than encouraged. As the articles settled in, I imagined fleeing the corruption of brand-name higher ed to join the brave ranks of professors at community colleges nationwide. There, at least, one can still make a difference and give folks a leg up in the great struggle for a place in the new knowledge economy. Flushed with an admittedly purely hypothetical and perhaps self-congratulatory hope, I put down the New Criterion and reached for the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly . But there, continuing the barrage, was an article by “Professor X” (“The Basement of the Ivory Tower”). This anonymous instructor described his harrowing attempts to teach with integrity at one of our “colleges of last resort.” After hard experience with hopeless cases, “Professor X” (in accord with Charles Murray) learns that the dreaded words of that mythical guidance counselor¯“you’re not college material”¯were, in more cases than we thought, right after all.

I poured a less polite measure of whisky. Higher education gets a severe beating in these magazines both from above and below. The upper tier is infected with what is best described as a terminal case of theory. The lower tier is driven by a combination of fiscal opportunism and naïve optimism, which conspire to insist that everyone has what it takes to get a college degree. I was demoralized. I felt like Marat in Jacques Louis David’s famous painting, my hope assassinated by the facts. So there I am, reclining in a tub of warm memories of what might have been, with the New Criterion and the Atlantic Monthly sagging lifelessly in my hands.

There is reason, however, to think this is not the whole story. Were the sixties really a golden age when the humanities were “liberated from religion but not yet subordinated to science and specialization”? The statement caused me to wonder. Might there be a connection between such “liberation” and any subsequent subordination? Furthermore, should the collapse of the humanities, wrenched from any transcendent horizon, come as any kind of surprise? The New Criterion leaves the religious aspect of the academic crisis unexplored, the very perspective that provides a measure of hope. There is a new openness in academia to matters religious, and though frequently artificial and always inconsistent, I find in it cause for excitement rather than despair.

I recalled a recent hard-hitting article by the Reformation historian Brad Gregory in an academic journal that finally calls “secular confessional history” to task. Gregory mandates a “thick description,” thicker than the kind famously proposed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He unearths the materialist assumptions that unconsciously inform so many of his colleagues and makes a compelling case that historians need to “proceed as if the religious beliefs of their subjects might be true.” Examples of such an “open” methodology, at least in my field of medieval history, are not difficult to find. Thinking along the same lines as Gregory, University of Chicago professor (and recent Guggenheim award recipient) Rachel Fulton writes that medieval historians must “explain what it means to have faith and thus to act in the conviction that there is a reality other than that which may be ‘objectively’ perceived.” Her historiographical approach is nothing less than a declaration of independence from postmodern skepticism. Barbara Newman, a medieval historian at Northwestern, goes even further. She represents a new generation of feminist historians, ones unafraid to trample tired orthodoxies. Thus her rather striking declaration: “It was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality, or ‘the body’ that [medieval woman] struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.”

Or consider art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, who recently called for a reconsideration of neglected theological sources in medieval art history. “The critique of theology,” Hamburger wryly suggests, “must itself be deconstructed.” A keen sensitivity to theology is a mark of all of Hamburger’s scholarship. He takes pains to show that, when pitted against theory, theology—long a domain of sophisticated, multivalent textual engagement—can more than hold its own. Hamburger’s rhetoric is all the more interesting considering his position. Tenured at Harvard, his is not exactly a voice from the margins.

Admittedly, these are only a few voices and all near my field of specialization. But it is hard to imagine any such statements being penned in the “golden age” of the sixties. Today, religious or religiously sensitive students and professors may be the best stewards of the values secular humanism once upheld: human nature, a coherent self, classical virtue, meaningful language, and linear history. If renewal in the academy is coming, it will likely having something to do with faith-friendly faculty.

In his recent address to educators, Pope Benedict XVI touched in advance on many of the points brought up by the latest string of laments. He pointed out that the “crisis of truth,” well documented by the New Criterion , is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” It is therefore no wonder that his faith led to a different and more optimistic conclusion: “Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.”

Hope? I corked the whiskey, and another Jacques Louis David painting came to mind. Not the reckless bravura depicted in the Oath of the Horati . Militant calls to “retake the academy” may be a self-deceptive and destructive strategy, as if the proper antidote to the current ideological bondage of higher ed is an equal and opposite militant movement. Instead, I thought of the courage displayed in David’s The Death of Socrates . One can face the hemlock of career uncertainty with confidence, finger pointing toward the source of any genuine renewal: up.

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at Millinerd.com .

References

The New Criterion , May 2008

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower , the New Atlantic , by “Professor X”

The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion History and Theory , History and Theory (December 2006), by Brad S. Gregory

From Judgment to Passion by Rachel Fulton

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist by Barbara Newman

The Mind’s Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages by Jeffrey F. Hamburger

“Meeting with Catholic Educators: An Address” by Pope Benedict XVI

Articles by Matthew Milliner

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