“The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life”
Howard Mumford Jones, an English professor at the University of Michigan and later at Harvard, long ago commented that American colleges and universities echoed rather than critiqued contemporary culture. In our increasingly diverse culture, is it any wonder higher education today more resembles a cacophony than an echo? While the major functional difference between a university and a college has been that the former places a higher premium on research while the latter focuses more on pedagogy, all students should benefit from exposure to ideas that prepare them to live responsibly enough to make the world a better place for their having been part of it. In this Information Age, the nature of globalism pushes humanity toward a form of moral relativism beyond historical context to the point it renders truth ambiguous if not irrelevant. Thomas Hobbes warned that a world with a multitude of choices devoid of essential truth could lead to lives “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Higher education done right can avoid that.
Higher education should accrue to standards attendant to individual and public integrity, respectful of human rights, and instill a willingness to live responsibly for the common good. Without these, no society, especially a democratic republic, can survive for very long. I spent nearly four decades of my professional life in military service and in teaching; a great portion of it simultaneously. As an intelligence officer, I learned to search for truth—the lack of which can prove fatal. Truth cannot be based on the degree of pleasure it brings or reflects. As an educator, I found the pedagogical function of a college or a university is to prepare students for responsible citizenship. In an increasingly diverse society, it is incumbent on institutions of higher education to bear the burden of pursuing and perpetuating knowledge undergirded by definitive truth.
A century ago, long before the advent of the turbulent 1960s, when as a student I first dove into the waters of higher education, this was not as vital as it is today. In American society before the 1950s, individual character was formed by three powerful institutions: church, family, and school. Since then, the weakening of church and family have left a heavier burden on our schools.
Concerning the church, a 2019 survey indicated 65% of Americans self-identify as Christians; down from 85% in 1990, 81% in 2001, and 12% lower than the 78% reported in 2012. Furthermore, a 2018 poll indicated only 20% of Americans regularly attend religious services. Constant cleavages among Protestant denominations over social-justice related issues left much of American Christendom polarized between a large number of social activist congregations and a smaller number of more conservative iterations. There are rifts along similar lines in Catholicism and Judaism. None of this is healthy.
What about families? Currently, married couples make up 68% of all households with children under 18 years of age, compared to 98% in 1950. In many of those homes, both parents work, leaving childrearing to K-12 schools and after-school care. A lot of these families gather only for dinner and then adjourn to television, computer games, or internet and social-media chattery, diminishing opportunities for moral and ethical guidance.
Given this situation, schools are expected to provide for individuals what used to be accomplished at home or in Sunday school. What is undertaken in many schools depends on the quality of teachers. That is where higher education becomes critical. Among today’s unpleasant truths is that college and university classrooms may function as the last resort where individuals can learn anything about ethics, morality, personal integrity, and the eternal truths long ago propounded by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the Athenian academy where students were imbued with concepts attendant to responsibilities of citizenship.
Higher education underwritten by the pursuit of truth through academic excellence is where the values attendant to Western civilization must be presented and then infused into the next generation. Analogously, colleges and universities should provide students a calm pool for a vigorous swim through a current of ideas and concepts to prepare them for careers in the professions, business, or various forms of public service. Those four years between childhood and citizenship are the best, perhaps the last, opportunity for the next generation to acquire those aspects of spirit and mind enabling happy and successful lives as responsible American citizens in what will be an increasingly complex world. A diverse, multi-cultural society inimical to—or ignorant of—the ideals that emerged from Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome is unlikely to produce responsible citizens needed to perpetuate a democratic republic.
This is why Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, where I taught for over a decade, and places like it—and these are few—are so critical.
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- Thinking the Unthinkable—and Responding Wisely - March 27, 2020
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- Higher Education in an Increasingly Diverse Culture - February 5, 2020
- How Martin Luther King, Jr. Changed Hearts - January 15, 2020