University of Western Ontario

University of Western Ontario

Early this summer I attended a graduation party for a small, private Catholic high school where the children of several friends were saying farewell to classmates and teachers they had known for years – some of them since kindergarten. Many of these young men and women were babies when I first met them, so this pleasant evening was tinged with melancholy thoughts about the passage of time, soundtracked by the ever more insistent drumbeat of aging.

At the same time I couldn’t help but think about where these young men and women were headed – most of them to colleges and universities where they would be educated at great expense to their parents, in an academic and cultural atmosphere that those parents had every reason to regard with unease, having lived through it themselves a generation earlier.

It’s generally assumed that in the culture wars, universities are somewhere far behind the battle lines, in territory long ago occupied by the enemy. A dark forest through which our children nonetheless have to pass on their journey through life to get the apparently indispensible credentials that will allow them to intern at low or non-existent wages, or compete with thousands of other graduates for entry-level jobs while lunging for the bottom rungs of career ladders in a job market that’s often depicted as something like a boot camp gauntlet, or a salmon-spawning stream patrolled by armies of ravenous bears.

It’s not surprising that a groundswell of second thoughts are building about the current state of and, even more crucially, the actual purpose of post-secondary education. Parents are wondering why they spend money – considerable sums, in many cases – to pay to have their family values dismissed or denigrated, while students are increasingly wary of spending years in debt from earning a degree that might offer scant competitive edge in an overfilled job market.

This anxious reassessment of the university rests on two teetering foundations – culture and utility. Indeed, British philosopher and conservative luminary Roger Scruton, in an article published last year in First Things called “The End of the University,” analyzed the recent history of the university as a conflict between these two principles.

The traditional university, as celebrated by Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University, was primarily a cultural institution, what Scruton describes as “a quasi-monastic precinct opposed to the utilitarian mindset of the new manufacturing society.” A fine idea, but one that could not withstand the pressures of the modern era, or the growing demands of an egalitarian society with little respect for the old social orders and an equally urgent need for technical training in entirely new professions with little use for Latin or Greek or the enthusiasms of a declining leisure class.

In the new university, esteem is given to disciplines that serve the needs of this new culture, now as much post-industrial as industrial, and huge endowments are spent on faculties that train in the fields of technology, management, and the growing ranks of bureaucracy and NGOs who research, write, interpret and administer our ever more complex thickets of regulation, law (local, national and international ), and ever more baroque tax codes.

At the same time the humanities have been “liberated” from the value judgments that underpinned the university Newman celebrated, and are dominated by competing but complimentary ideologies that are actively hostile to the books, writers and ideals Newman loved.

“The Marxist theory of ideology,” Scruton writes, “or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth.”

But the humanities aren’t enough, and tentative inroads are being made into other faculties and disciplines – first through “softer” studies like economics, with a hungry eye on “hard” ones like engineering – to overthrow old certainties and ideologies in the quest for egalitarianism, not just of attitude, thought, and ideals but of facts themselves – a missionary quest to rewrite not just the laws of man but of physics; to make humankind, and the world itself, better. (Better, of course, by the standards of liberal humanism.)

Students of history – the old, judgey kind, of course, and much discouraged – will be reminded of Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet biologist who attempted to make agriculture bend to the doctrine of dialectic materialism, and with Stalin’s favour dominated plant science in the Soviet Union, marginalizing or destroying the careers of scientists who promoted genetics and the scientific method. For the second time in a century – and despite ample lessons the first time around – we’re seeing the onset of Lysenkoism.

None of this was new when I entered university in the early ‘80s, though it seems to have increased in ardour, hegemony, and absurdity. I suppose I entered university in search of some ghost of Newman’s ideal and left – degree-less and disillusioned – when it couldn’t be found. My own faith, which had frayed and failed under the half-hearted care of enervated Basilians, seemed to have fallen away entirely, and I imagine that many of the parents at the graduation party this summer worried that a similar dismal scenario might happen to their children.

I can offer at least a glimmer of hope. One of the new friends I met at university was Christopher Snow, a student at the Divinity School at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. In due time he became an Anglican minister, and along with his brother Bob remained my friend for years afterward.

I would meet up with Bob and Chris for drinks, dinner or concerts over my long, lapsed years, during which I slowly recovered from the disappointment of college, and started reading the books I wished I’d had the discipline or sobriety to study then. It was a self-guided education that, bit by bit, led me back to the Church, quite against my best efforts.

The last time I saw Chris I told him about my relapse in Catholicism, my marriage (in Latin!), and the little Catholic school my children were attending. “The thing is, Rick,” Chris told me with a grin, “that nobody who really knows you thought you were ever not a Catholic.”

He knew me better than I knew myself, which I suppose wasn’t really a surprise, since it was his business.

Fr. J. Christopher Snow died this summer after a battle with leukemia. I went to his funeral in his parish church in Milton, Ont., where his energy and faith were praised by his parishioners and fellow priests. I will miss him and his friendship, and maybe even whatever other revelations about myself he might have shared.

And it’s with Chris in mind that I’d like to try to assuage the fears of parents like myself who worry about how university will buffet and bruise the values they’ve worked to instill in their children. You might have assumed that it had harrowed away what was left of my own faith and love of learning if you’d met me during and after my college years, but even for graduate students the college years are brief, and the life that follows – “the real world” as we’re fond of calling it – presents new challenges that aren’t usually favourable to youthful skepticism or fashionable enthusiasms.

With luck you might even meet a friend whose insight exceeds your own. Hopefully we’re raising children imbued with enough real tolerance to respect opinions that clash with their own, however fanatically held or self-evident to the eyes of a 21-year-old. Learning doesn’t end with the awarding of a degree. I’d even suggest that it really might not have started.