This is a still-rough idea, throwing it out there to see what kind of form I can put it into, to see if there’s anything there.
Mark Shea linked to this morning’s contribution to the burgeoning field of higher education criticism. What are colleges and universities for? Why do they teach, or at least offer classes in, the things they do? Money. Tenure. We’re spared, in this essay at least, discussion of how unprepared the students are, how invasive the parents are, and how much crushing debt they have. Those are, it seems, just ironic icing on the cake, or the swill-puddle at end of the long, greased slide of modern education.
In Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, the author traces part of the history American Universities as they relate to the chief characters of the story. One clear thread: when Harvard, the flagship and type of American university, was founded, it was a Puritan school, training many Puritan ministers. The structure and approach were inherited from Cambridge, where many of Harvard’s founders and early supporters had gone to school, and where heavily Calvinist Puritans were a strong force on the faculty.
The fundamental logical constraint on Calvinistic Puritanism is, as Chesterton put it, that it must operate within ‘the prison of a single idea’. Puritans didn’t leave England and the Netherlands for America because of religious persecution – they left because saner heads wouldn’t put them in charge of everything, which they passionately believed was the right thing to do, since they had figured out everything by applying the blunt instrument of their one idea. They knew whose heads needed to be cracked. So they come to America, and put themselves in charge of everything, including the colonial government that founded Harvard, and Harvard itself.
Problem is, Calvinism, with its predestination and depravity and irresistible grace, is a bit of a soap bubble, idea wise – the slightest crack reduces the structure to a few damp spots on the ground. When it cracked toward the end of the 18th century, the result wasn’t a kinder, gentler – and less intellectually insane – version of Calvinism. It was Unitarianism, which combines a mystic certainty in the individual’s ability to find his own way and save his own soul with the bedrock practical certainty that nobody knows anything, when push comes to shove.
There’s a certain obvious tension between these two idea, between the sacredness of each individual’s path and the unknowable nature of dogma. This parallels, in a strange way, the tension ever present in Calvinism between the knowledge of our own helpless depravity and faith in a God one of whose chief actions in all of Scripture is to *call* us to repentance. Just like the main intellectual current in Islam since the sacking of Baghdad, where it is sacrilege against the omnipotence of God to even contemplate secondary causes, a Calvinist’s intellectual task is always, ultimately, to understand how creation is and can only be as it is as the direct intention of God, to explain away all biblical calls to action as deceptive illusions, like the apparent flatness of the earth. The kind of God who can make the world appear flat while being round is the sort of God who can make our actions seem free while being utterly predestined. He is the God not of medieval science, but the God of modern science par excellence.
Unitarianism inherited this one foundational intellectual idea of Puritanism – things are not what they seem – saw the clear reflection of that idea in the science emerging at that time, and embraced it. And made it the foundation of the American University.
It took a century or so for this idea to take complete hold, and it went through several stages. The first, as detailed in the Metaphysical Club, was the early stages of what is always called the conflict between Science and Religion. More truly, it should be called the conflict between Science and Biblical Protestantism. Calvinism starts with the one idea of the Omnipotent God, Whose omnipotency does not include the power to grant freedom to those He made in His image, and reads the Bible through that lens. Applied with any consistency, this requires ignoring or mangling the majority of Scripture – but not the bedrock belief in its literal infallibility. So when science started to show that many biblical statements and assumptions don’t jibe with the observable world, the Puritans of Boston were left with an array of choices: abandon the literal interpretation of Scripture, or abandon science, or bifurcate truth into mutually exclusive buckets, or abandon any claim for consistency – or some combination.
At Harvard in 1780, Rev. Samuel Langdon, one of a long line of Puritan ministers to serve as Harvard’s President, was forced to resign:
But his words and deeds soon irritated students no end, what with scriptural harangues stretching to 90 minutes at the expense of Sunday-evening singing.
It seems the students were somewhat lacking in appreciation of his fervor. Langdon was followed by Rev. Joseph Willard, a man of considerable mathematical and scientific achievement and the founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. About him it was said that, had a career in science been available to him, he would have chosen that path – he became a clergyman comparatively late in life.
Willard’s theology was unexceptionable, but on controversial points often enigmatic. “He could not be seriously faulted by the Calvinists, for he believed in the real divinity of Christ and the Atonement, but he avoided dogmatic theology, metaphysics, and the threat of hell fire.” Willard believed that “the spirit of Christ and his Gospel is love, meekness, and gentleness to all men.” Religious belief for Willard was based in reason, and was a deeply personal, indeed private matter: even his own son did not know where he stood on the Arminian (Universalist) controversy of the day.
Uh-oh – are we seeing some Unitarian leanings here? He also was the first Harvard President to deliver his commencement address in English instead of Latin.
Then all hell broke loose. Willard was succeeded by Samuel Webber:
Orthodox Calvinists of the true puritan tradition now became open enemies to Harvard. [. . .] On the positive side, the effect was far-reaching. Unitarianism of the Boston stamp was not a fixed dogma, but a point of view that was receptive, searching, inquiring, and yet devout; a half-way house to the rationalistic and scientific point of view, yet a house built so reverently that the academic wayfarer could seldom forget that he had sojourned in a House of God.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, “Three Centuries of Harvard”)
Note the logical momentum here: We first have the claim of Calvin, Luther, et al, that Scripture is the necessary and sufficient guide to salvation. The Puritans take that idea, and run with it all the way to America, where they hope to be free to enforce their understanding on everybody. Indeed, Puritan ministers more often than not ran the government and the university for almost 200 years. By the late 18th century, the more fanatical Puritanism was losing the young, to another idea, another lens through which to see Scripture and the world: that everybody is saved – the ‘Universal’ part of both Trinitarian and Unitarian Universalism.
BUT: if everyone is saved, what is the role of Scripture? While it may have some romantic or sentimental claims on our attention, it is no longer required for our salvation – by definition. So we can start to ignore it.
But, alas! The types of minds raised and trained by Calvinists are going to feel the need for that key that explains everything, that lens that puts certain things into focus and blurs others out of existence. For 300 years at this point, EVERYTHING they thought they knew came through and by means of such a key – Sola Scriptura was the name, and history (Great Apostacy, anyone?), logic (if our salvation has nothing to do with anything we do, why bother telling anyone?) were the blurry edges of the picture.
There is a hole in minds of such men.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, different men were working on this issue – what is the big idea by means of which we understand everything? – under different conditions entirely. The rise of nation-states was in some sense the resurrection of ancient tribalism. Within the Greek and Latin world of the Catholic Church, it was possible for a man to have loyalties beyond his tribe, even at odds with his tribe. By the 13th century, loyalty to the God/Man who is Truth itself was recognized as THE highest and first loyalty in the insistence of the Scholastics that Truth is One – there is not and cannot be a conflict between the truth of religion and the truth of the world.
In such a world, political power must be understood as secondary in the lives of all men. The state is not God, no matter what the Caesars had claimed. Since the children of this world are wiser about the ways of the world than the children of light, the children of light must be very careful in fulfilling the demands of the state. Yet the state is a jealous god, and will never rest in its efforts to include within itself the power of religion: Henry VIII stands out for his brutality and his clumsiness, but not for his goal of a state church controlled by him – that was the dream and practice of every monarch with the very rare exception of few saints. So, by the Middle Ages, theologians had explored the issue of what degree of loyalty one owed to a Pope, say, who was also a prince (as they all were at that time). (The answer is characteristically logical: you can be loyal to the Pope as Pope even as you wage war on the Pope as prince. Needless to say, Henry VIII rejected this idea – disputing his claims was both treachery and heresy.)
The result in Europe was that for centuries, nations could fall, yet remain Catholic.
But things changed with Luther and Calvin. They was assumed that the state would of course be an arm of the church. Luther addresses a number of his writings to the princes of Germany, expecting them to enact his ideas, such as closing all the monasteries and converting them to mandatory state schools. 100 years later, the Puritans head for America. 100 years after that, Fichte can argue that the state should seize and educate all German children – for moral reasons. The chief moral failing of Germans, in Fichte’s view, is in their imperfect service to the state. The question of whether or not the state is competent in and can be trusted with this task any more so than parents is never entertained for a moment. It never comes up.
At this point, standing astride 300 years of Protestant thinking, comes Hegel – with his one big idea. The Spirit is unfolding itself through History. Everything is properly understood only when it is seen as the unfolding of the Spirit. Contradictions are meaningless – the Spirit as revealed in History just is, you either get it, or you don’t. Those that don’t are on the wrong side of History – and the wrong side of God. It is not logical, it Just Is.
And, back in America, the Unitarians looked at this, saw their own reflection looking back at them, and embraced it. The science/religion conflict is resolved by compartmentalization: seeing science as something useful, but clearly subservient to the one big idea. Nothing in science can contradict the big idea, as science is bound by logic and the material world – things scorned by those of the Spirit.
Also, Hegel’s big idea can be seen to support the grand enterprise of remaking the world *right*, of wresting control away from those benighted/reactionary/counterrevolutionary Catholics. The Puritan cause for being was that the Church of England wasn’t anti-Catholic enough for their taste (John Fisher and Thomas More’s heads on pikes notwithstanding). Nope, their children the Unitarians were going to be in charge of both Church and State, and get it done right this time.
Another benefit of this one big idea is that there is no responsibility for failure. Progress can only be interrupted or delayed by the actions of reactionaries – it’s always their fault. For some reason, my job as a Hegelian of some flavor only requires that I be on the right side of History and that I support ideas and movements that are moving the ball forward – my job doesn’t require I take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
So, by the second decade of the 19th century, Hegel and science in the limited Hegelian sense started to spread like wildfire throughout academia. Think of Darwin as the poster boy – he studied to be a minister, didn’t like it, and then pursued science while refusing to get involved in any metaphysics. In other words, he saw himself somewhat as Hegel would have seen him: a lesser man, a technician, a Not A Philosopher. Darwin represents a nearly perfect case of the divorce of Science from Philosophy. The predictable reaction is for scientists to disparages philosophy. Who, after all, wants to be a second class thinker, and what could be more worthy of disparagement than Hegelianism?
Yet whether or not they disparage Hegel, everyone clings to the Big Idea. Boiled down: the lens through which you see the world is more real than the world. Nothing in the world can contradict it. Math and Logic cannot contradict it. It is impervious. A lemma: anyone who does not see it, who tries to contradict your big idea, is by definition evil. They just don’t get it, an so are the enemy.
Almost all education theorists in America are Hegelians, either consciously or simply by osmosis. More generally, Hegel spawns Marx directly, but from there, clinging to the more generalized Big Idea, we get Freud, and all the isms and theory theories that serve as complete explanations of everything – and fortified bunkers against any criticism. in the 1920, the issue of academic freedom was settled: no academic can be judged except by other experts in their field. This is an essential – not to mention deeply satisfying – step for all the purveyors of the crap science and political browbeating that passes for a college education in 2014.
Except there’s one group that rejects Hegel and the big idea: the enemy, the Catholics. The believers in one Truth. Therefore, seriously Catholic colleges also happen to be preeminent among those rare places where one can still get an education. Chesterton would enjoy the paradox: by embracing dogma, Catholic colleges have been freed from dogmatism.