Learning Among The Ruins


Even more than the Church, the university encapsulates the entire modern cultural crisis, because the university defines itself as the bearer of the totality of culture, past and present.

Even more than the Church, the university encapsulates the entire modern cultural crisis, because the university defines itself as the bearer of the totality of culture, past and present.

The phenomenon loosely called “the sixties” remains the crucial episode in university, church, and society at large. What happened in the period roughly from 1965 to 1975 was the greatest challenge that higher education in the United States has ever faced, and there is no way of concealing the fact that, for all their vaunted “openness” and the great stores of wisdom they supposedly guarded, the universities failed in that crisis in ways that have brought on a slow spiritual death.

The obvious death wound of the universities was their inability to resist, or even to express principled disagreement with, naked acts of coercion and terrorism intended to prevent them from carrying out their activities. Classes were forcibly canceled by threatening students; curricula and rules concerning student behavior were precipitously “reformed” under similar kinds of threats; vandalism to buildings and occasional violence against persons occurred. If the university, as its devotees had been fond of boasting, was the one place where the rule of reason was supreme, that monarch proved wholly ineffective when confronted with determined acts of revolution, the rejection of all reasoned discourse.

Mere cowardice on the part of faculty and administrators explains some of this, but not all. Anyone who lived through the campus crisis of two decades ago recalls how the paralysis of those ostensibly in charge of the institution — faculty, administrators, often trustees as well — was induced at least as much by a troubled uncertainty. Many of the priests of reason simply could not bring themselves to state unequivocally that the assaults directed at them violated their own sacred principles. In the student rebels they saw something of themselves, and part of their being, if it did not actually sympathize, was nonetheless prepared to “understand” quite liberally.

One of the great frustrations engendered by the New Left was the fact that some of its criticisms of higher education were justified. But even these were advanced only semicoherently and simplistically, intermingled with a great deal of pernicious nonsense. Thus a possible opportunity to reform the universities authentically instead produced changes that were almost all destructive.

The validity of the New Left’s criticism was in its charge that modern higher education has allowed itself to become merely pragmatic and instrumental and has lost sight of any possible transcendent purpose. The reasons for this are primarily institutional, not personal, as illustrated in the fact that in the modern university a devout religious believer may sincerely see no way in which his faith should inform his teaching or research and may even think that such influence would be subversive of the nature of education. Indeed, as education has come to be defined, it would be.

The professionalization of higher education has produced unfortunate results that are too familiar even to need enumeration —faculty often interested in narrow research projects with only slight relevance to a real education, students permitted (in some cases forced) into programs involving similar kinds of narrow specialization, the “smorgasbord” approach to education that breeds superficiality and eclecticism.

Such effects are inevitable under the terms of modern disciplinary specialization because no discipline can claim the right to evaluate any other discipline, and thus no discipline can even define its own place in the hierarchy of knowledge. There is simply no theoretical way, within the established disciplinary perspective, in which a university can declare that some courses are more important than others or that certain courses constitute an irreducible core of genuine liberal education. Thus, as often noted, the modern curriculum is in practice almost entirely the result of academic politics — particular disciplines tend to gain larger pieces of the curriculum for themselves mainly on the basis of the political skills of their practitioners. Any claim of disciplinary importance is met with the counterclaim that the claimant is merely defending an unfairly privileged position.

Philosophy seems to be the one discipline that in principle claims to make judgments concerning all the rest. But this claim is not acknowledged, and even many philosophers themselves do not make it. Insofar as philosophy is a discipline that claims to understand all of reality, other disciplines must either bow to it or condemn it as guilty of intolerable arrogance. The fact that they do neither but merely make a modest place for it in the institution demonstrates the way in which pragmatic rather than theoretical criteria now govern educational judgments.

Thus, apart from any conscious philosophy or ideology, modern higher education is of its very nature naturalistic, in that no discipline can persuasively claim access to transcendent truth; secular, in that all disciplines are bound solely to “data” available to their practitioners; and rationalistic in a narrow sense, in that disciplinary activity is wholly limited to what can be learned cognitively and expressed in discursive formulas. In a very confused way, the student rebels around 1970 were asking if there was not more to education than this.

Thus the present crisis of the liberal arts was inevitable. Already perhaps fifty years ago, it was anomalous for institutions to prescribe certain courses as “essential to the educated man”, since the working philosophies of most professors gave them no basis for making such a claim. The classical liberal arts survived almost entirely through tradition, or its cheap counterfeit inertia, and sooner or later were bound to be subjected to critical scrutiny. When academic radicals insist that there is no basis for erecting a hierarchy of disciplines, they are expressing a philosophic position but also merely stating a fact.

Whatever may be the case within a particular discipline, across disciplinary lines today no assertions can finally be either proven or rebutted, because the participants in the discussion lack common assumptions. (This does not prevent certain positions, for example, “multiculturalism”, from becoming unquestionable dogmas, imposed essentially by coercion.)

But amidst the decay of higher education, there is little reason to suppose that there has been a collapse of standards in what have traditionally been called “the professions”. Medical and law schools probably have stricter standards than they did thirty years ago and certainly require their students to imbibe far more information than they once did. Business has spawned advanced programs with more intellectual content — advanced economics, computer science — than the businessman of thirty years ago ever thought he needed. The physical sciences are probably more rigorous, and more spectacularly successful in their results, than ever. It is mainly in the relatively “soft” areas — the humanities and the misnamed social sciences — that there has been a fall into crises so profound that each discipline has great difficulty even justifying its own existence, and in which what were once considered unimpeachable “standards” (in English, for example, a knowledge of earlier versions of the language and an acquaintance with the works of canonical authors) have all but disappeared.

American universities are awash in vocationalism, a highly ironic development from the New Left revolution, which, in properly Marxist terms, condemned the way in which the universities had supposedly been “coopted” to the service of capitalism. There is, however, a straight line between the revolution of two decades ago and the deadening vocationalism of today. Student rebels of the earlier era demanded an end to all confining and arbitrary educational requirements, which meant the practical termination of the classical liberal arts. This was justified on the grounds that the students of that time were such free spirits that they wished to explore the mysteries of the cosmos in highly original and imaginative ways, so that even basic liberal arts courses were deadening. Even then it was apparent that most students, freed of the burden of liberal education, would use the available time to enroll in more and more “useful” courses. The classical university could defend itself against vocationalism by insisting that every student had to be broadly educated. Today it has no basis for saying this.

Possibly American higher education had by 1965 reached a peak of vitality it had never before attained, judging from such things as student intellectual achievements, the acceptance of genuine criteria of merit rather than mere social status by the elite schools, the professional competence of the faculty, and the seriousness with which the educational mission was almost universally taken. If that judgment is accurate, then this peak was attained immediately before the earthquake that has all but destroyed it.

Many faculty at the time found it expedient, for either cynical or foolishly idealistic motives, to praise the intellectual qualities of the student rebels, to the point of insisting that their assaults on the university were entirely wholesome, summoning those institutions back to the higher wisdom to which they were supposedly committed.

However, it was apparent even at the time that, with few exceptions, the most aggressive student rebels were not well educated even in subjects professedly dear to them, such as Marxist theory. Indeed, part of the New Left mystique was its contemptuous dismissal of any painstaking effort at acquiring knowledge on the grounds that the uncorrupted young possessed an almost X-ray vision into realities opaque to the older generation.

In an important way, the assault on the universities around 1970 was the victory of popular culture over high culture. The curriculum was “reformed” not after lengthy philosophical discussion of how wisdom and knowledge are acquired but solely because of the impatience of the students with anything felt to be an imposition on the self. Campuses became in effect privileged zones for unrestricted sex and drug use not after lengthy consideration of the mysteries of the human psyche as explored by any number of great thinkers but solely because of the urgent “needs” of adolescent bodies. Universities quasi-officially committed themselves to certain political stances — opposition to the Vietnam War, chiefly — not after study of the complexities of global politics and the morality of war but solely under the threat of campus violence and in response to slogans that could not have withstood a minute’s rational analysis. As has often been pointed out, one factor in the student rebellion beginning around 1965 was the fact that young people of college age for the first time formed a major social class with abundant leisure and money and the ability to use both in ways that pleased them. They came to the universities already deeply formed by attitudes imbibed from films, television, and popular entertainment generally, attitudes impervious to almost any kind of reasoned appeal.

One of the many ironies of that era was the way in which the New Left met the Old Right on the common ground of philistinism. Fathers who were self-made businessmen had been sneered at for their coarse refusal to acknowledge cultural values higher than money. But their children, despite the benefits of the best secondary education, were equally crass in their refusal to acknowledge such values. The filthy speech movement at the University of California stood for more than simply the expansion of the acceptable “limits of discourse”. It also was the victory of raw, assaultive acts against even a pretense of critical standards. The New Left in principle refused to argue its case, because to do so implied that “the establishment” might have a case of its own, and relied instead on naked assertions of the will, sustained by energies generated in the orgiastic depths of the youth culture.

The important question is not why the young of that era acted as they did but why their elders acted as they did, namely, abjectly surrendering to the worst of this philistine coercion, utterly failing to defend the principles to which they had professedly given their lives.

Cowardice and expediency alone do not explain this massive failure, nor was it peculiar to the universities, although it was most dramatic there. The youth culture could not have wreaked the havoc it did without the moral collapse of parents, clergy, political leaders, and almost every other kind of adult authority, who sometimes vied with one another in abasing themselves before their young critics.

The universities of 1965, apparently so proud and successful, in fact rested on a highly unstable synthesis that can be called classical modernism. In the secular institutions the battle with orthodox religion had long ago been won, and the universities had shown themselves hospitable, although for the most part in only a purely academic way, to every variety of modern thought — Marxism, Freudianism, positivism, the various forms of scepticism — having taken the idea of mere disciplinary professionalism as their one guiding truth.

From the modernist critique of the past, culminating at the end of the nineteenth century with Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Darwin, intellectuals of the midpart of this century thought they had constructed a viable synthesis, a balance between the corrosive acids of modernity and the need for some kind of social and cultural stability. The best representatives of this classical modernism were men such as Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, who had given themselves entirely to the demands of modernity but had also evolved a new civility and sense of order, which has been called “the tradition of the new”. Such people were rudely brushed aside by the New Left and by many of their own faculty colleagues, their desire to engage in civilized discussion itself regarded as a sign of moral weakness and a finicky defense of personal privilege.

In a sense the young radicals were right, because their assault on the intellectual citadels of classical modernism merely revealed the hollowness of that synthesis. In the end the classical modernist had no convincing argument to make against those who were, in a half-conscious way, allowing the acids of modernity to penetrate even more deeply into the psyche, a process that owed little to any great thinkers or great books and almost everything to a debased popular culture. If Freud was taken to mean total sexual hedonism, Marx to dictate violent assault on the bastions of privilege, Nietzsche the annihilation of all accepted beliefs, the classical modernists were hard but to argue that such interpretations were wholly wrong. Above all, they had no basis for even decreeing which positions might be right and which wrong, modernism itself, at whose altar they worshipped, having long ago destroyed the means of doing so. Many older persons around 1970 responded to the youth revolution with almost ecstatic approval because they saw there acted out the impulses that they had themselves entertained merely in theory for many years. They saw themselves as cowards who deserved the contempt their students heaped on them.

As noted, the parallel between the crises of university and church are very close, especially the fact that both institutions claim to embody a wisdom higher than the demands of ordinary life. University and church collapsed together, both to some extent willfully destroyed by their supposed guardians, the university being the very church that classical modernism had created, within which it thought that all people should in some way or other worship. But by 1970 neither church nor university could any longer identify what was to be regarded as sacred, what truth was capable of demanding people’s unqualified allegiance.

For two centuries the heirs of the Enlightenment had been announcing the demise of classical Christianity, an announcement increasingly welcome within the precincts of the church also. When the rebellious young in effect announced the end of the Enlightenment itself, this announcement was greeted with cheers within that institution, which had attempted to enshrine that Enlightenment.

Although the student rebellion began at a state university, that of California, its second manifestation was at an elite private institution — Columbia — and for the most part the private universities, including those supposedly imbued with a sense of tradition and gentility, did not fare any better than did the public institutions in those cultural wars. In many cases they probably fared worse, because openness to the New Left was the sign of a progressivism of which the private universities did not wish to be deprived.

All Catholic universities in 1965 were still relatively traditional. Most of their faculty and students were practicing Catholics, and required courses reflected this very clearly, especially in the dominance of scholastic philosophy. Rules of conduct were strict and strictly enforced. Given the fact that these schools had not as yet even experienced all the effects of classical modernism itself, it might have seemed that they were well situated to witness and to profit from the latter’s ignominious demise. Instead, almost all Catholic institutions quickened their pace of change, so as to undergo in five years’ time a cycle of decline that had taken the secular institutions more than a century to live through. Compared with the most “advanced” secular institutions today, most Catholic institutions are still somewhat conservative. But for the most part this is merely a matter of degree, and the gap is closing. (Most Catholic schools still have some required courses in theology and philosophy, for example. However, once the dogmatic principle has been discarded, it will be impossible for administrators, theologians, and philosophers to explain why such courses ought to be required. Eventually the proponents of total secularization will triumph, for the same reasons that the radicals triumphed in the secular schools twenty years ago.)

The dominance of vocationalism in today’s universities is dictated by the simple fact that there is no other accepted principle by which educational achievement can be defended and enforced. If educators are honest, given their own assumptions, they cannot promise students that the educations they receive will be enlightening or liberating in the fullest sense, since to make such a promise is to imply absolute standards that have no defensible basis. Instead the universities in effect promise students lucrative employment after graduation, a promise that they can keep at least to some extent.

Put another way, as the dismal prospect of primary and secondary education shows even more dramatically than do the universities, it is impossible in the end to teach even purely secular and instrumental subjects without a transcendent purpose. The public schools are full of pupils impervious to learning because they can see no reason why they should allow any intrusion on the psychic worlds that have been spawned within them by the popular culture they imbibe from infancy. Meanwhile, Catholic schools are reported to be far more successful in convincing many of these same pupils that education does indeed have meaning.

The present morass of higher education cannot be overcome within the framework of education itself or of the universities as they now exist. Their plight is simply the inevitable end of a modernism whose more corrosive applications were discreetly kept out of sight for so long. Among other considerations, there cannot be a healthy university in a culture most of whose institutions are sick, nor can the university be expected to cure that pervasive illness.

Salvation even on the intellectual level can now spring only from religious conversion, from a complete turning of the mind and heart away from what is tyrannical and debilitating and toward what is freeing and inspiring. Only with this change of heart can modern people even be brought to understand the seriousness of their plight, much less the path out of it. Although some scholastic philosophers might believe otherwise, such success as traditional Catholic higher education had was always due in large measure to the religious vision of the reality that it imparted, which gave even purely rational pursuits a meaning they would not otherwise have had. (Perhaps the only successful effort at reforming a Catholic university in modern America has been the University of Steubenville, where the importance of religious conversion as the condition of everything else is obvious.)

Except in very rare cases (are there any aside from Steubenville?), it is unlikely that any Catholic universities in the United States will be reformed. The forces set in motion a quarter of a century ago are simply too strong to resist, even if some educational statesman were to take office determined to do so. Education among the ruins thus means the paradoxical decision to build new things for the sake of preserving what is eternal.

In certain ways colleges within colleges, such as the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, seem preferable. Such an arrangement gives students access to a variety of programs not available in small colleges and not excluding access to legitimate kinds of vocational training. Beyond this, students in such programs gain the valuable experience of having to cope with an indifferent or a hostile world as part of their actual educations. Under such conditions the effective participation of orthodox students in campus politics and campus media, as St. Ignatius students have done consistently, is excellent experience for life in the modern world.

But the vaunted pluralism of the modern university offers very few opportunities for such colleges within colleges. Thus the founding of new institutions, such as Christendom, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas More College, is also dictated, and these too have distinct virtues. Among other things, they are almost by definition genuine communities in the fullest and most palpable sense, offering an education not only of the mind but also of the whole person, taking place in the midst of a group of dedicated individuals who witness their beliefs in their lives and not merely their lectures. Such an education was one of the recurrent demands of the New Left and, despite numerous “experimental” colleges at that time, seems to have been realized virtually nowhere, each such experiment foundering on the rock of ungoverned personal egos.

One of the ways in which some radical critics of twenty years ago were not wholly wrong was in asking whether schooling in a formal sense is necessarily the best way for all young people to achieve adulthood in modern society. Often the best students, in every respect, are those who have had some experience of the world, an experience that sometimes forces them to seek for truth in a pressingly personal way and thus makes them open both to religious conversion and to genuine education.

Although in the twentieth century the university has been the almost unquestioned center of intellectual activity in the United States, even to the point of swallowing so much of the artistic creativity that was once independent of any institution, there have been numerous times in the history of the West (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably) when the universities, for various reasons, did not have that importance. Today’s universities will not soon lose either their prestige or their endowments. But in certain ways their intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy, the depressing monolith of their pervasive leftist ideologies, has rendered them irrelevant to the intellectual tasks of the age. This is immediately obvious in the fact that many of the people who are actually thinking about today’s world and its needs are now associated with “think tanks” and other institutions outside the regular academic structure. If degrees are in a sense no longer important except for purposes of employment, those alternative institutions may in some ways begin to assume educational functions on behalf of young people interested in real learning. There has also been a proliferation of journals, publishing houses, and professional organizations that are conscious alternatives to existing institutions.

If popular culture has indeed defeated high culture, as seems to have happened in the universities of two decades ago, the problem of popular culture will have to be addressed in some serious and effective ways. There is a paradox here in that those with the principles and beliefs necessary to redeem popular culture are generally those most in ignorance of it because of its often disgusting, and always shallow, character. But the redemption of popular culture cries out for attention. One of the numerous ironies of the present age is that, as the myth that American Catholics came of age with John F. Kennedy is finally being exposed, a genuine Catholic coming of age has been all but overlooked. During the Reagan administration particularly, certain individuals such as William Bennett attracted a great deal of attention, much of it sympathetic, through their willingness to speak boldly on behalf of such basic truths as self-discipline and the integrity of the family, drawing on the roots of their own Catholic educations (at least at the secondary level) of three decades ago. On the Supreme Court, Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy may bring similar educations to bear on the great disputed questions of the day. Part of the irony, however, is that the leading spokesmen for Catholic education do not see in such persons the fulfillment and vindication of their efforts but the reverse — Catholic education has so immersed itself in the surrounding secular morass that men such as Bennett, Scalia, and Kennedy are often treated like embarrassing atavisms, reminders of a past that professional Catholic educators are trying to forget.

Church leaders do not seem to understand what many Catholic educators understand very well — that, as Cardinal Newman warned would be the case, the university functions as a rival church, pitting the dogmas of relativism against the dogmatic teachings of revealed religion. Most Catholic educators have resolved this dilemma simply by declaring that it is no dilemma — they have turned the Catholic universities themselves into rival churches, essentially promoting the same secularist agenda.

But the Church as a whole can still be a great teaching force — through the pulpit, through the Catholic press, above all through bold and articulate religious leaders able to capture the popular imagination and win people’s hearts. As the loss of the Catholic universities finally becomes undeniable, the Church must use her creative abilities to develop new ways of teaching both Catholics and the larger world the truths of the Faith and of entering in a vigorous way into the great debates of the age. (It is tragic that the Vatican’s apparent concession of autonomy to the American Catholic universities serves no other purpose than to enable those institutions to continue to claim the Catholic name for the decade or so during which they still may wish to claim it. It is unlikely that, much after the year 2000, many faculty will glory in that name, and it is unlikely that administrators and trustees will continue to insist on it.)

Allan Bloom’s celebrated critique of American educational illness, The Closing of the American Mind, [1] offers as acute a diagnosis as can be made of the nature of the disease. His proffered cures seem by contrast very pallid and are open precisely to the attacks already made on the classical modernist synthesis.

At certain times in history the patient voices of cool rationality are highly persuasive, and in those ages great syntheses, such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, are forged. But in ages of fragmentation and decay, of strife and despair, only the boldest and most prophetic voices are heard. Believing Christians are by far the people best qualified to speak with convincing authority at this juncture of history, and it appears that on most matters — the “life issues”, church and state, the nature of truth itself — evangelical Protestants must turn to Catholics for the intellectual resources that they need to carry their positions beyond sectarian dogma. In the years ahead some will follow the venerable monastic vocation of patiently storing up the fragments of culture against a better day. But for most, God’s will and the needs of humanity at this time in history seem to require a role more akin to that of the apostles on the first Pentecost.


1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Beaverton, Or.: Touchstone Books, 1988).


Hitchcock, James. “Learning Among the Ruins.” In The Mind and Heart of the Church 4 (1991): 27-41.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute and Ignatius Press.


James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press

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