Note: a more thorough review of Esolen’s book is coming very soon.
Thanks to Ben Franklin, it has always been possible to home-school yourself to a college education. Libraries let you walk right in, take any book (or nearly so) off the shelf, and read it. And you can do this over and over. What an astonishing privilege! And they don’t charge for it!
Alas, the weakness in this system is all too apparent. Rather, there are two weaknesses. One, reading is increasingly passé; or, rather, reading is returning to its more historic status of being an unusual activity. Two, and more important, it’s hard to discover what to read.
Imagine walking into a well appointed university library and pulling down a journal, any journal. Daniel Lattier reminds us you might be horrified to find yourself reading “Brides and Blemishes: Queering Women’s Disability in Rabbinic Marriage Law” or “Misfit Messengers: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Climate Change”. Not only would you not learn anything, you’d come away damaged.
Or you might find “Lensing substructure quantification in RXJ1131-1231: A 2 keV lower bound on dark matter thermal relict mass“, a fine entry in astrophysics but a paper which is sure to be opaque to all but a handful of men. Still, since there is truth here, even the most untutored reader will take something away from an earnest attempt at reading; at least the appreciation that some are reaching for the stars. Though this would not be the place to begin learning about the heavens.
Or, worse, you discover a textbook, a book written—nay: designed—with the purpose of teaching students (see the late Kenneth Minogue’s The Concept of a University for a cutting critique of textbooks). Books with lots of colors, cartoons, bullet points, and words drained of all beauty aimed at the lower range of intellectual abilities. As if this “dumbing down” is helpful. Incidentally, if this principle were applied to art, it would be the same as if we showed students who couldn’t paint only hand-drawn cartoons instead of showing them the Mona Lisa on the theory that since these unable students can’t produce such works, and can’t understand the whole of them, they wouldn’t understand a part of them.
Now it used to be that “the basics” were known by, if not most, then by a fair number. One knew who to query. “What books should I read in history?” asked of the, say, bank manager or even middle school teacher would brings answers like, “You can’t go far wrong starting with Thucydides” or “A boy your age would love Plutarch’s Lives.” Try it now and you’ll hear, “Why don’t you Google it” or you’ll be recommended a list where the demographic characteristics of the authors has the utmost political correctness, a list chosen by some obscure national committee, itself demographically balanced and ideologically correct, and containing works nobody reads, or should.
The meager point made here (to be expanded greatly in time), to amplify the much greater point made by Fr Schall in the video above, is that, except in rare instances, we can no longer count on colleges and universities to guide students toward the Truth. Esolen: “Whorehouses and mental wards would be much cheaper. They might well be healthier, too.”
“The great books contradict each other,” says Schall. Which is why mere reading of the Great Books is not enough. A philosophical grounding is a necessity. That grounding requires a guide, an authority, and that authority must rely on Truth. Reading on one’s own without direction might work, but it won’t be easy. Which is, of course, why colleges were created, to provide the guides and the direction required. But what do we do when colleges have given up Truth?
This has ties to the matters roiling the Church, incidentally. For years, sinners like myself relied on our on consciences to decide how to act. But since everything, at least is the moment, seems like a good, nothing ever seems wrong. You therefore can’t let people decide for themselves what is right, because you’re apt to arrive at as many definitions of “right” as there are people. You clearly would not look to a statistician blogger for the definition, but you should look to an authority. Which is why it is so strange that many Church leaders are refusing their duty to uphold Truth.
Schall says that his title, How to Get an Education Even While in College, “implies that hundreds of thousands of highly degreed people are nonetheless mostly uneducated in the highest things even if they are degreed from the best and most expensive institutes of higher learning. It is quite possible to attend, what I call, the resumé university or the highest tuition college, to acquire there a straight-A GPA on all of the 128 credits that guarantee a student a liberal education; and yet, most still come away with an empty soul; to become what CS Lewis called them, ‘Men Without Chests.'”
The partial solution to this is to follow men like Schall, at universities that still house them, or elsewhere if not.