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Out Of Academia’s Ashes

In the introduction to Out Of The Ashes, his hell-raising book about the collapse of American culture (especially academia), Prof. Anthony Esolen writes, “The ancients had memory.”

He goes on to detail our decline and fall. But this is not merely a lamentation. Esolen writes:

So we need to clear out the garbage, admit our errors, and rebuild. That requires humility, patience, and determination. But nothing else will do. When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent. It is time to get to work, and that is what this book is about.

I am thinking tonight about Esolen’s chapter on higher education, for a reason I’ll tell you below. First, take a look at these excerpts from that chapter:

The old mottoes [of the Ivy League colleges] assumed the existence of God, the moral law, and the beauty of pursuing truth. It is beyond the scope of my essay here to argue the unity of the transcendentals, though I do assert that even a skeptic must find it powerfully suggestive to notice that the secularization of the colleges has been accompanied by a contemptuous denial of the very existence of beauty and by lassitude in the search for truth except as regards that narrow range of truths that can be reduced to the residue of a test tube or expressed in a neat mathematical equation. When you say that what is considered “good” is merely what the politically powerful call good for their own purposes, or that what is considered “beautiful” is merely the result of subrational neurological tics and spasms, you do not merely put obstacles in the path of the young mind. You kill the search for truth in the egg. If there is no truth to be learned from reading Homer, then why bother, except as an archaeological curiosity? If the lesson to be learned from Virgil is the same as that to be learned from the slogans of our time, why spend so much money and time struggling with the Aeneid? What is the point? And indeed professors and students now agree: there is not much of a point. If beauty is reducible to neural promptings, why bother to erect that scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel and lie on your back for months on end, with the paint dripping into your hair and eyes, yourself never farther than one moment of forgetfulness from falling to your death?

Walter Pater wrote that all art aspires to the condition of music. We might apply his words to the contemporary university and say that all knowledge aspires to the condition of an empirical experiment and its quantified results. That is what people now assume. Pater might have been correct in his assessment about art; I won’t argue the matter here. But it is certainly not true that the methods for acquiring knowledge of the anatomy of a toad apply also to acquiring knowledge of things that are not toads, as, for one example, what is good and evil.

This is not to say, though, that the colleges have abandoned moral considerations utterly. Relativism is an unstable equilibrium—imagine a pyramid upside down, placed delicately upon its apex. It might make you break out into a cold sweat to stand in its shade. The question is not whether some moral vision will prevail, but which moral vision. The colleges are thus committed to a moral inversion. High and noble virtues, especially those that require moral courage, are mocked: gallantry in wartime, sexual purity, scrupulous honesty and plain dealing, piety, and the willingness to subject your thoughts, experiences, and most treasured beliefs to the searching scrutiny of reason. What is valued then? Debauchery, perversion, contempt for your supposedly benighted ancestors, lazy agnosticism, easy and costless pacifism, political maneuvering, and an enforcement of a new orthodoxy that in denying rational analysis seeks to render itself immune to criticism. You sink yourself in debt to discover that your sons and daughters have been severed from their faith, their morals, and their reason. Whorehouses and mental wards would be much cheaper. They might well be healthier, too.

So, what can we do about it? Esolen begins:

Some of the old colleges and universities can be injected with shots of sanity and truth-seeking, and those shots should be administered whenever possible. That is not a matter of healing a gangrenous limb here or there, but of searching the field of battle after a devastating defeat, and finding the few people still breathing who can be saved. So there are programs in Catholic studies at formerly Catholic colleges, or programs in Western civilization, or in the so-called great books, at colleges where the only people who did not know anything about Shakespeare or Milton were day laborers or immigrants still learning English, rather than tenured professors, administrators, accreditors, and trustees.

Sometimes we can put their ignorance to good use, for many people are so far past hating Milton for what he says about God and man, about marriage and sanctity, about liberty and virtue, they neither know nor much care what he says. We may then be like people administering antibiotics to heal the wounded, when the conquering army has forgotten what an antibiotic is, as they smile upon us for our foolishness in believing there is any special potency in a drug, as long as lice and dirty bandages and open sewers are doing their good work roundabout. What can be the harm in penicillin? Why should we worry if someone does the old-fashioned thing and learns about Dante?

Then there are those for whom “diversity” is not a slogan for clean- ing and sharpening a pedagogical guillotine but a real value in itself.

These are the rather rare agnostics “in the middle of the journey of our life,” not contented with the dark woods but knowing nothing else, who suspect that if they are ever to get clear of it, they must at least entertain a wide range of points of view. These people are our qualified allies. They will look cross-eyed at administrators who on Monday cry “diversity, diversity” but on Tuesday write curricular guidelines that goose-step through Berlin in self-satisfied conformity. Why then not offer a real program in the development of Western civilization for those students who want to pursue those lines of inquiry? These are professors who can pretend not to know that the real object of a university education these days is not truth but power; and they can sometimes compel their politicizing fellows to pretend not to know it, too. We should consider that an hour spent reading Wordsworth can cure you of wanting to spend twenty hours reading contemporary inanities; as a single powerful experience of beauty, say the sensitive study of Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Pomegranate,” may make it hard for you to take seriously a “performance artist” smearing chocolate on her naked body. I tell my students that if they ever find me walking down the street reciting Welsh poetry, they may throw an odd look my way, but they needn’t worry about it, because it will still be within the bounds of possibility. But if they ever see me entering a modern sculpture museum, they should call the para- medics immediately, because I will clearly have lost my mind.

I should stipulate, here, that such programs should not be infested with professors who despise the material they are to teach. It is telling that I should have to say such a thing. For great art is human in this regard too: it does not give up its profoundest secrets except to those who love. Hatred clouds the eyes and hardens the heart. I do not like the Enlightenment, and I have my reasons; therefore I am not the ideal person to introduce students to Hume and Kant. Some people seem to believe that the only way to teach about Western civilization is as an exercise in self-loathing. Such people are not really critics—because the true critic still must love. You cannot have anything interesting to say about Racine and classical French tragedy if its severe moral analysis leaves you cold. Doctor Johnson loved Shakespeare immensely, and that makes his criticism of the bard’s pursuit of the “quibble,” the groan-rousing play on words, all the more impressive and revealing. Love reveals. It is an eye, as Richard of Saint Victor says. No love: no vision.

If these words of Esolen’s that I’ve quoted at length speak to your heart, then trust me, you really, really need to read Out Of The Ashes.  He goes on to say:

Ultimately, though, we must build new colleges. This is an absolute necessity. We have exemplars in our midst.

And he lists those exemplars, and explains why he chose them. Order the book and read for yourself. The point I want to make here is that there are not remotely enough of those colleges for a country this size. We need to build more. To put it in a MacIntyrean way, small-o orthodox Christians and all — including secular people — who treasure the traditional humanities need to “stop shoring up the academic imperium” and create new institutions within which the life of the humanities can thrive amid the barbarism of the contemporary university (and I’ll have a lot more to say about the events at Middlebury College in a separate post).

All of this came to mind today after a long, pleasant lunch with a couple of friends I haven’t seen in a while. N., the husband, is finishing his PhD in a humanities field at an esteemed university, and is back in Louisiana temporarily to take care of family business. N., who is a believing Christian and a cultural conservative, told me that he has become so discouraged by the environment within academia that he is having trouble contemplating giving the next 40 or 50 years of his professional life to making a place for himself within the university. He gave examples of the chronic political correctness that he says is suffocating the life of the mind within the university. He talked about a friend of his within the academy, an ethnic and religious minority who is quite progressive, but who will not use social media for fear that progressive things she might say today will be deemed intolerable bigotry tomorrow, and cost her her job, her professional reputation, and more.

“You know, these people come after your personal life, even your family,” said my friend.

N. doesn’t just want to run away from something corrupt. He wants to run toward something good. He just wants to teach, to pass on real knowledge and wisdom, to honor the tradition he has devoted his scholarly life so far to learning. His field has nothing to do with Christianity, just so you know. He is afraid that ideological tyranny in academia, plus the deliberate forgetting of traditions within the humanities, are causing precious things to die.

N. said that he hasn’t done all this work, learning a subject that he deeply loves, to have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for the academic commissars, and to try to make a place for himself in institutions that don’t value true learning and real scholarship. (N. reads this blog; if I’ve distorted any of this, N., please chime in to correct me.) Plus, he said, he can see that the current university model is going to crash, and crash hard, under a mountain of unsustainable student debt.

N. said he’s thinking about doing something entrepreneurial with higher education when he gets his doctorate. What this is, he doesn’t yet know. But he’s eager to build something good, true, and beautiful.

“You need to be in touch with my friend John Mark Reynolds,” I said.

Who is John Mark Reynolds, and why is he relevant to our discussion? He was the founder of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, then the provost at Houston Baptist University, and more recently founded an classical school in the Orthodox Christian tradition. I write about him in The Benedict Option:

Christian graduate students in the humanities tell me that they can read the handwriting on the wall in academia and see no future for themselves as college professors. In the fall of 2016, some younger members of the Society of Christian Philosophers publicly assailed Richard Swinburne, one of the most eminent living philosophers, as a bigot for briefly defending the orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality. Prominent non- Christian philosophy professors from Yale, Columbia, and Georgetown piled on, insulting Swinburne and his defenders in lewd, profane terms. This kind of thing is why one Christian Ph.D. candidate in English literature at a prestigious American university confided to me that the total left-wing ideologization of literary scholarship caused him to give up plans for an academic career.

The ground is moving swiftly and decisively under our feet. It’s time for Christians to recognize the danger and begin creating a Christian academic counterculture. John Mark Reynolds is preparing for that shift. When he left the provost’s job at Houston Baptist University a few years back, he was offered the presidency of a college. He turned it down, even though it was a prestigious job that paid much more money than he’s making as head of the Saint Constantine School, the classical Christian academy he founded.

He wears a number of hats at the fledgling Houston school—even part-time janitor. It’s a bit of a blow to his pride, but he says it has been good for him to realize how coddled he was in conventional Christian academia— and how much it made him dependent on a higher education model that he believes is financially unsustainable, and will collapse.

Reynolds explains that even Christian colleges are living on the edge of a financing bubble that is bound to burst. When he was a Christian college provost, less than one-third of the school’s budget went to academics.

“College as we know it must die,” he says. “I’m not willing to have an inner-city kid come to school and borrow a hundred thousand dollars to get a baccalaureate degree that may or may not lead to a job, where they don’t see a full-time professor for two years. That’s the real world.”

The Saint Constantine School model will eventually include a four-year liberal arts college. The school is tied tightly into local churches, and its college component, when launched, will be closely affiliated with the King’s College, a Christian institution in New York City. The reason, according to Reynolds: “Those Christian institutions that were accredited before the troubles that are coming will be the last to be challenged.”

The Saint Constantine president reports a surfeit of excellent résumés on file, including a number from master’s degree and Ph.D. holders. “There are lots of smart, conservative, orthodox Christian teachers out there who need work,” he said.

Anthony Esolen agrees. A well-known literature professor, Dante translator, and orthodox Catholic, Esolen came under intense fire in the fall of 2016 within his own school, Catholic-run Providence College, for speaking out against what he believed was the administration’s attempt to gut its Catholic identity for the sake of multiculturalism.

“It’s long past time for administrators at Christian colleges to abandon the hiring policies that got us in this fix to begin with,” Esolen told me. “We know that there are plenty of excellent young Christian scholars who have to struggle to find a job. Well, let’s get them, and get them right away. We should be establishing a network for that purpose.”

I had a much longer conversation with John Mark than I was able to use in the book. Take a look at this page on the Saint Constantine School website to get an idea of their vision for a liberal arts college program, which they are going to begin this fall. John Mark’s idea is to get back to basics, offering traditional humanities studies in an authentically Christian environment, at an affordable cost. You can do that when you serve students who are there for the sake of real learning, not for a four-year vacation at a spa with a football team attached.

Will the Saint Constantine School model work? We will find out. But in my view, this is the Benedict Option in action: men and women of faith, conviction, and learning responding to the cultural and civilizational crisis creatively and entrepreneurially. The Saint Constantine School is modeling the future of humanities education in America. I’ve heard it said by others that we’re fast getting to the point where the only places you’ll be able to get a traditional humanities education, the kind that steeps students in the Western tradition, are Christian colleges and universities. That’s true of Saint Constantine — and, if they pull it off, they’re going to make it affordable.


N. told us that he was assisting a professor in an upper-level undergraduate class in his discipline and was shocked to see that none of the students could write a coherent argument across several paragraphs, Most of them couldn’t even lay out a basic argument in a single paragraph.

Someone at our table on staff at a classical Christian school chimed in to say that the military service academies told their headmaster that they prize graduates of these schools because unlike so many of the graduates of mainstream high schools, the classically educated kids know how to reason.

Anyway, I told N. I would introduce him via e-mail to John Mark Reynolds. Surely there are a lot more younger Christian (and not Christian!) scholars who love art, literature, philosophy, religion, history, and so forth, and who dread the thought of spending the rest of their lives dessicating in the husks of what were once havens of the humanities. My hope is that The Benedict Option inspires a small army of John Mark Reynoldses, and — this is important — the benefactors who can put the resources behind building these new institutions (and strengthening already existing ones that are fighting the good fight).

Why not? What else is there? Do you really want to keep shoring up the educational imperium?

UPDATE: James C. sends in this recent short Tracey Ullman sketch that speaks to the point:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_jzDGv0KKw&w=525&h=300]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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