What higher education once was, and what it now is

Carol Iannone writes at Phi Beta Cons:

The reader who wrote in about Princeton’s mottos reminded me of something I saw at a recent lunch at the Harvard Club. We are all probably familiar with Harvard’s motto, Veritas, “Truth,” if for no other reason than that Solzhenitsyn prefaced his great Harvard speech by mentioning it. But the whole motto, still to be found on the crests that decorate some of the gathering rooms at the Club, is Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, “Truth for Christ and the Church.”

According to Wikipedia, an early Harvard brochure “laid out the purpose of all education: ‘Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Iesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.’”

Of course Harvard no longer has this Christian character, but evidently it wishes to preserve its prestigious historical roots and has made no move to change the motto. And that motto could still serve not as a call to Christian service, but simply as a reminder that human beings have a larger purpose than self-realization. And students could be reminded that the great institution they attend would never have come into being had it not been that their forbears understood this and acted on it.

Speaking of Princeton, Walter Kirn’s memoir of his years at Princeton in the early Eighties, Lost in the Meritocracy, has some awful insights into what happens when a school fails to give any sense of a larger purpose to students’ lives. Kirn tells of a vast drug culture at Princeton, in which students do not just get high but seek epiphanies, which suggests the emptiness of their education.

He tells of one gathering in a filthy student residence that features Jello made of vodka and laced with another drug called MDA, into which toy soldiers had been mixed. Students would take a forkful of the mixture and then spit it out on the floor in a supposed rejection of militarism. This indicates that in the absence of any real ideas, young people have only mindless left-wing tropes to inspire them, and also gives us a chill as we contemplate these moronic Princeton Jello eaters as our future leaders.

Back to the story. Kirn steps on some of the messy stuff in his stocking feet (and the reader might call to mind the circle of the gluttons in Dante’s Inferno who wallow in a vile slush symbolic of their indulgence on earth). So repellant is all this to Kirn that he reaches out for deliverance to some power greater than himself. He comes upon a volume of William Butler Yeats, to whom he appeals and receives, he believes, the message to try poetry. This may not equal the visions of Saul or Augustine, but it does show how human beings need something to guide them. It is a shame that higher education at our most prestigious schools has forsaken the great questions about how man should live and the aims he should pursue. Education should be about character formation and not about self indulgence, whether in vodka Jello or left-wing slogans.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 28, 2010 02:05 PM | Send

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