A Search For The Soul Of Academia

What can be said, today, of the university educated man?

As the generations have passed, do we perceive of the university in the way that it was understood and championed by our ancestors? To answer these questions we must go a step further by first asking, since antiquity, what has been the vision of the university educated man.

Ben Novak, a former trustee at the Pennsylvania State University, has put it this way: “The university man, if all other society had been destroyed, would be the one able to raise it up again.” Would today’s college freshman, entering the ivy tower viewing his degree as little more than a job ticket, be able to restore our lost civilization?

Those with natural-born passions, from love of philosophy to literature, civics to history, mathematics to the sciences, are today entering college and being super-specialized into little more than functionaries of their particular field of study. They are being reduced to automatons in a system born of the ideas of Aristotle.

At the heart of it, higher education is so pervasively stripping our nation’s youth of its imagination that we may have already mortgaged our future in allowing our academies to abandon the pursuit of truth or the essential desire for wisdom.

Indeed, beyond the facts of the day — those things which change over the course of time as the scientist redefines our understanding of the universe and the philosopher expands our minds — that special quality of the university which called every young entrant to glory was the nurturing of the individual imagination.

Those of the classical university knew that, beyond raw information and skill sets, the single most important thing that could be done for each undergraduate was to develop his innermost virtue — his character — so each student could live a life of learning, always seeking wisdom and truth beyond all else.

“What the university aspires to develop,” proclaimed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “is an excellence of the intellect which accords with that perfection of the body which is called health and that perfection of the moral nature which is called virtue.”

So, the university educated man was one of character and imagination. These qualities were nurtured by his alma mater, his “dear mother,” in a way that built upon the education received before his acceptance to the university. His character and his spirit, then, relied on the foundation first built by his family. It was merely the job of the university to call those qualities out of each student.

Our challenge today in higher education is not to call on administrators to reform their institutions or for professors to re-examine their textbooks. This is a struggle, rather, for nothing less than the soul of America — it is our society itself that we must reform.

Just as the classical university recognized that it could only act in loco parentis if each young man first had learned the essential qualities of virtue at home, so too must we accept that our modern universities cannot instill a sense of character never fostered from father to son, mother to daughter in the daily words, thoughts and action that define a person to the wider world.

As America enters the 21st century, our national character and confidence in our ideas on the rights of man will be challenged in new and unimaginable ways. To meet the future, we cheerfully must set ourselves to the task of rebuilding this pillar of our civilization, to rekindle the spirit of the classical university in a new age.

Americans, unique from our contemporaries, place faith not in the collective but in the individual, so it is fitting that in examining higher education we must first examine the state of our own souls.

The trade-school-ification of liberal higher education can only be reversed one person at a time, one university at a time. In times of great peril comes enormous opportunity — ours is to rediscover our character, virtue and limitless imagination. This is an opportunity to rediscover our humanity.

Then, perhaps in a generation, our universities can rediscover theirs.