Yard Sale of the Mind

The Price is Right

The Higher Education Mish-Mash

Posted by Joseph Moore on March 21, 2013

One of the central threads followed in The Metaphysical Club is the bifurcation over the 19th century of American college education into Science and Not Science.  Menand describes how Harvard moved over a couple generations from the embodiment of Puritan ideas of education to the the embodiment of Unitarian ideas. From there, it is a short logical hop to complete secularism. Harvard’s presidency went from a Puritan theologian, to a Unitarian theologian, to a scientist with no theological claims in about 50 years (don’t have the book in front of me, pardon me if the details are wrong – I think the sweep is right.)Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Meanwhile, you have statistical analysis, Darwin, and the Civil War leading educated Americans to call everything they believe into question. Part of this – a huge part of this – is that Protestant theology, especially as expressed in Puritanism and Unitarianism, doesn’t really have the solid philosophical and logical foundation to support a view of reality that includes and harmonizes Revelation and experience. The proof of this: the logic and metaphysical assumptions required for scientific investigation are a subset of Thomism, and not a subset of the metaphysics of Kant, Fichte or Hegel,* and most definitely not a subset of the thinking of Luther.

File:Holmes with signature cropped.jpgIn practical terms, a believing Harvard man in 1820 would expect the natural world to conform to Divine Revelation as clearly stated in Scripture. Up to around 1800, there really wasn’t a ton of overwhelming evidence that the natural world *didn’t* conform to Scripture, at least not evidence that couldn’t be comfortably explained away. The four corners of the earth is just a poetical image, not a statement of geophysics. But that the world and everything in it was created out of nothing about 6,000 years ago – that was harder to explain away if one is to cling to Scripture as the Protestant of the time typically did: as a bulwark against all that Jesuitical hair-splitting and Thomistic angels-on-pins-dancing characteristic of the Catholic Church. That path – taking the literal sense of Scripture as but one way to understand it – lead away from Sola Scriptura, lead to introducing external, non-spiritual elements into understanding. So, just as Catholics were unperturbed by having the Church define the Cannon of Scripture while Protestants were (and are) absolutely insistent on some other more acceptably spiritual mechanism, Thomists and Catholics in general are not upset by the thought that the world might be ancient, that Scripture might sometimes be more truthfully understood as poetry and theology than geophysics and biology, and, that in any event, the Truth is One, whether discovered through Revelation or revealed through study of the natural world, Protestants seemed compelled to either cling to Scripture and dispute the physical evidence, or acknowledge that Scripture is ‘wrong’. This battle, with a thousand degrees of nuance, is still being fought today.

Back to college education. Because of this more sophisticated understanding of reality and Revelation, Thomists, the founders of Europe’s great and ancient universities, were and are not unduly perturbed by evolution, natural selection or statistical uncertainty. In fact, they see these ‘problems’ as just more fascinating aspects of creation, and try to understand them both in themselves and as revealing of the nature of God. In practical terms, in a Thomistic university, natural science, philosophy and theology could live under the same roof, so to speak, and communicate with each other based on a shared understanding of the nature of reality and truth. But in 19th century America, the shared understanding, insofar as it existed, was far less robust – any understanding of the natural world was seen as having, as it were, a dependent existence – it must be understood within an already delineated understanding of Scripture. As more and more discoveries pushed and strained at this limitation, the unity of the college could not hold. Add in the horror of the Civil War, which destroyed many people’s faith in God, or at least in the God of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the unity broke down entirely: by the 2nd half of the 19th century, American universities have almost always consisted of two independent institutions sharing, with growing unease, buildings and a bureaucracy.

That this truce is ignored doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned before the whole Science Kicks the Creationist Dog aspect of academia: a hard scientist can’t complain (out loud) about the stupidity exhibited, for example, in the Women’s Studies  department, where students and teachers turn on the lights and fire up their laptops prior to discussing how Science has no valid claim to truth, it is in fact nothing more than a tool of oppression wielded by patriarchal misogynistic elites to keep women in line. So, instead of screaming to high heaven over the traitors to truth in the adjoining buildings, traitors who have a lot of influence with the administration and don’t shy away from publicly destroying the careers of people who challenge them, science fans bravely go after Creationists, who don’t do any of that stuff and have no pull and often no presence in their institution.

So, now, this situation prevails: in one and the same institution, an 18 year old can spend 4 or 5 years and 100 grand plus getting trained in:

a. the scientific method as applied to a particular hard science, such as chemistry or physics. In the course of these studies, the student will learn a lot of math and perform experiments and projects where the difference between correct and incorrect, or success and failure, will often be easily apparent o both the student and the professor. A degree is awarded if the student proves to be satisfactorily competent in producing objectively correct or successful results in his field;

b. the conventional and completely self-referential thinking du jour of whatever Humanity or soft ‘science’ they have chosen. In this context, there is no objective measure of correct or successful completion of projects. Success depends entirely on the ability to regurgitate a certain theories and ideas on command. Degrees are awarded to students who display sufficient conformity to the thinking of the student’s academic specialty.

Of course, these are purified extremes – there are grey areas, occasional overlapping, and cross-politicization, such as Skinnerians playing at science, and scientists playing at philosophy. And it is quite possible to teach fields such as History and Philosophy with a high degree of rigor. Doesn’t seem to happen much, but still.

The impression I got at the universities and colleges I’ve hung out at over the last 40 years: the hard science people tend to hold the non-science folks in contempt; the non-science folks seem to be hide their well deserved defensiveness behind a wall of condescending arrogance. In general, academics seem to be about as thin-skinned and needy as any group I’ve ever run into.

On top of all this are the professional schools – MBA, CPE, etc. – which are cash cows and tend to exist in an alternate universe separate from the rest of the school.  They are a frauds of a different kind, but that’s off topic.

One supposes this can’t go on. Why would the customers – the people who pay the college bills – put up with this? especially now, when a college degree is hardly a meal ticket? Two solutions loom:

Financial ruin. So far, our fine colleges and universities have managed to push the ‘financial ruin’ part of the equation onto the students and parents. Eventually – I suspect soon – the music will stop. A college price war is already brewing over the net, it seems to me. When a degree won’t get you a job that can pay off what the degree cost, market forces demand that costs come down – or else. Academic inertia being what it is, my money is on ‘or else’ for many schools.

Reconsolidation. Hey, what if we started with the idea that the Truth exists, and is One? Some religious schools, especially Catholic schools, are trying this – Thomas Aquinas College springs to mind. This has the huge, incalculable benefit – science *needs* philosophy to refine its logic and check its arrogance – and visa versa. The worst tendencies towards philosophical flightiness can often be checked, it seems to me, by seriously looking at the natural world.

As usual, I’ve left out several times as much as I’ve put in here. Time is short!

* Science and Thomism share the assumption that I, the inquirer, exist, as do other people and scientists; the world exists independent of me and my investigations; that thoughts and ideas can be communicated between men via language and mathematics; that, while men possess an intellectual nature commensurate on some level with the natural world, the world can prove my thoughts and ideas wrong. Further, the law of non-contradiction holds,  and, more subtly, the world is worth investigating scientifically.  This set of ideas is not shared by the Big Boys of Philosophy who came out of (and, in the case of Kant and Hegel, explicitly acknowledge their acceptance of) Protestant theology, nor is it shared by any of the other great schools of thought - Buddhist, Muslim, etc.

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3 Responses to “The Higher Education Mish-Mash”

  1. [...] The Higher Education Mish-Mash [...]

  2. [...] Yard Sale of the MindNow that Hitchens is dead, what really sticks out about so much of Evangelical Atheism is the sheer [...]

  3. […] of elite colleges, a topic I’ve touched upon with trip-hammer like gentleness in essays like this one and this other […]

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