Seek ‘old books’ for guidance in today’s colleges and universities

Seek ‘old books’ for guidance in today’s colleges and universities
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With the Fall Semester upon us, football in the air, days getting shorter, and politics becoming ever more raucous, we might ask ourselves: “Why do we have colleges and universities in the first place?”

Many see the universities mostly filled with leftwing ideologues that are intolerant of everything but themselves. A student may learn more about the truth by reading his way through what were once called “old books,” if he can find the right ones. Of course, one of the reasons for going to universities was to find out what books were worthy of reading with more than usual care.


Victor Davis Hanson wondered (in the August 14 edition of National Review) if today’s academic dons outside certain sciences are really worth much esteem. It seems possible to spend two or three hundred thousand dollars for a college education and come away baffled by it all.


Most of these institutions of higher learning, as they are called, both here and abroad, have full-time students from foreign countries as well as programs where students from abroad can study for a semester or a year. Some 3,004 four-year colleges and universities are listed in the United States. We have plenty of schools available.

A college was once considered to be rooted in a fixed place, in some town like Macon, Georgia, Waco, Texas, or Indianola, Iowa. But with today’s Internet, we can have all or part of our schooling on-line from almost anywhere. And while we do talk of colleges open to senior citizens, most colleges and universities are filled with students whose age falls between 18 and 30.

Students can stay in college too long for their own good. The purpose of college is not to remain there all one’s life, faculty perhaps excepted. We talk of part-time and full-time students and adjust the amount of time spent in school to that difference.

Some universities like Ohio State and NYU are huge, small cities in themselves. Medium-sized schools will average from four to ten thousand students. We also have plenty of smaller schools with student bodies of less than a thousand that often provide a more thorough and integral kind of education. We have business and training schools, including seminaries, for various skills and talents.

An abiding tension resides in all learning institutions between the question of “What is everything about?” and “What is this particular thing about?” In general, the latter question has overshadowed the former. But if we do not know much about everything, we mostly likely will not know what the particular thing means either. Professor Jay Budziszewski at the University of Texas has a book with the provocative title, What We Can’t Not Know. It is a good place to begin.

Higher education is big business. It is usually an economic boon to the town or city in which the school is located, though it can also be a cause of local turmoil. Someone must at some level pay for it all. Low tuition or free schools are not really low-cost or free. The costs are hidden in the taxing system. Schools with significant endowments are made possible by laws that allow giving to such institutions. Not every nation allows this; some retain all higher education in the hands of the state. A sure sign of a totalitarian mind is one that insists that all education should be in the hands of the state.

One of the most striking phenomena in the United States is the growth of home schooling, largely because parents dislike the ideology they believe exists in state and private schools.

Most of the great universities of Europe were founded by officials of the Catholic church, yet it was recognized that to do their work, they needed a space relatively independent of both the church and the state. This space needed protection, even armed protection, so that a certain kind of honest and free exchange could take place. This was the exchange of ideas, of argument. The university was a place of books, of the long time that it took to figure most things out. The authority of the university had its own kind of sanction. Standards of excellence had to exist. Those who would not or could not meet these standards could not remain within the university.

One reason why we have different universities is that there are different understandings of truth and the good. This fact does not mean that relativism should rule. But it does face the fact that different understandings of reality need their own space. All universities are responsible to each other. No university is free to mis-state the position of some other view. I am free not to agree with someone’s view if I have reasons to do so. I am not free to state his view falsely, even if it is false. If I am to state something is true, I must present my arguments for why I think it is true. These arguments are what constitute the raw material of university life.

A university, with apologies to the wall before Mexico, is best pictured as a walled city. The purpose of the wall is not to keep the students in the school, but to keep the world from constantly intruding. This does not mean that the university is not concerned with the world. But it does mean that current events are not of prime importance in a university. A student who majors in “current events” or jazzy course titles will be out of date the day he graduates.

Robert I. Gannon’s little book, The Poor Old Liberal Arts (1961) has been recently republished (Ignatius Press 2018). In it we read: “General culture should precede specialization; this general culture should not be appraised in terms of immediate utility, like courses in a trade school; the first responsibility of a college of liberal arts should center, not on facts or skills, but on attitudes; its primary task should be the refining of taste, the sharpening of intellect, the strengthening of will, the ennobling of character” (29). These are not the usual words today’s undergraduates first hear.

Students today usually are solemnly convoked. They are then given rather detailed rules of diversity, hate-language avoidance, rules about sexual relationships, and being nice, but little about self-discipline and practically nothing about truth.

To the few who realize that something fundamental is lacking, some of the old books will speak. We used to talk about saving our souls. Today we must begin by trying to save our minds - no matter which of the 3,004 is open to us this fall semester.  

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.