Education, once upon a time, meant the transformation of an inchoate human being into one who fulfills his nature. It involved aligning the passions with reason and bringing the appetites into submission. Education had a goal, and it was the properly ordered human soul.
Nowadays, in a pluralistic society, we have no common conception of what it means to be human. We cannot agree even on the question of whether man has a fundamental nature at all. As a result, education has lost its goal and turned into an aimless jumble of fragmented fields and sub-fields and sub-sub-fields. We lack the shared conception of the good that would be necessary to unite these fragments. When a society no longer holds a shared view of man’s end, the obvious consequence is that it forfeits the ability to agree on education’s end.
Under the reign of liberalism, what is called “education” has steadily become little more than an avenue by which individuals, who now define their own notion of the good, can pursue the ends they have chosen. After all, who is the university administration to impose on students its own notion of what is important and worth knowing? To do so would be considered authoritarian and patently out of line with our liberal orthodoxy.
In this respect, Brown University’s educational policies are ahead of the game. According to Brown’s Web site, as far back as 1850, Brown’s fourth president was arguing for “greater freedom in the undergraduate curriculum, so that every student would be able to ‘study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.’ ” And Brown has realized that vision. Students are granted “the freedom to direct their own education,” unhindered by such backward notions as mandatory courses or distributional requirements.
Yalies joke about Brown’s rather outlandish educational policies. But we should admit that these policies embody the logical conclusion of the premises of liberalism: the individual’s will must be sovereign, unimpeded by the constraints of another individual’s notion of what is good or valuable.
Then again, perhaps Brown has not quite reached the logical conclusion. Perhaps it would be more in keeping with the principles of liberalism to repeal all requirements whatsoever — including the minimum number of courses necessary to graduate. Surely this would advance the cause of freedom, finally allowing students truly to study what they choose, all that they choose, and absolutely nothing but what they choose. For now, though, we can only wait expectantly for such enlightened policies.
The basic conflict between liberalism and education is clear enough. Liberalism idolizes liberty (or, more accurately, license), but education requires robust constraints. Liberalism exalts the individual will, but education demands the subjection of that will to the wisdom of those who know better. Liberalism negates a common conception of man’s nature and end (his formal and final cause, if you like), but education makes no sense without some end around which to orient itself.
In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Edmund Burke wrote of a certain preacher, “His zeal is of a curious character. It is not for the propagation of his own opinions, but of any opinions. It is not for the diffusion of truth, but for the spreading of contradiction.” We find the university today in a similar state. In embracing pluralism and thereby denying the validity of any opinion or philosophy over any other, the university has become a training ground not for a particular kind of person, but for any kind of person — at least in theory. It is no wonder that in today’s liberal societies, the university lacks any clear mission statement. It lacks any clear mission.
To be clear, I am not proposing that Yale formulate a comprehensive set of mandatory courses. For one, I would be loath to imagine what such a course list would look like. More fundamentally, however, Yale probably lacks the resources to devise a core curriculum. In order to do so, members of the administration and faculty would have to agree, at least to a considerable extent, on what areas of inquiry are most important and what approaches to inquiry are most valid. That kind of agreement does not arise spontaneously. It is possible only in a society (or a segment of society) that has distanced itself from the destructive claims of liberalism.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.