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Universities: Who Teaches What To Whom? Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Wednesday, 03 September 2008

Joseph Ratzinger, in his not-to-be-missed 1977 book, Eschatology (if you know what that word means, you do not need college), wrote: “As philosophizing continues, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas do not become prehistory; they remain the originating figures of an enduring approach to the Ground of what is.” Eric Voegelin used the same phrase: What is the “ground” of what is, of reality? Our lives are driven by this curiosity, this wonder, this longing about why we are rather than are not. Confronting such movements within us is what philosophizing is about.

Where do we go to find out? We seek out the “originating figures,” Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, Augustine. But we do not read Plato, Aristotle, Thomas to “research” them or to see what sundry “scholars” said about them. We read them excitedly to find light on the Ground of what is. Anything less is an invitation to despair. Not a few students, on leaving universities and graduate schools, depart with this feeling of despair. Somehow, they know, no one ever spoke to them of the really important things, though they recall much ridicule of claims on truth. Plato had warned us about the sophists. Learned, they spoke well and eloquently of anything at all, whether they believed it or not.

Each autumn, a new cohort of university students arrives on campus. Those needing a year or two more to “finish” their “degrees” to complete their “education” also return. Except at the very rich universities, which now seem to be able to hire their own students, a hefty fee is required. This cost is born by parents, by a citizenry taxed by the state, or by the student’s own work. Though many would make it a “right,” so that “everyone” receives a “degree” financed “free” by the state and controlled by it, higher “education,” as it is called, is a “privilege.” This word is also used to encourage less eager students to put in the time and work needed for academic accomplishment once they have arrived on campus.

In the title of this essay, speaking of universities, I ask: “Who teaches what to whom?” I have long been concerned with what seems to me an obvious fact, namely, that students can go to universities, whatever their stated administrative “mission,” and come away knowing little or nothing about what is really important.

In this regard, I think that the much-consulted lists of the “twenty-five best universities” are almost worthless. A correlation between fame and jobs with the prestige of famous universities may exist. But that correlation has almost no further correlation to serious questions of truth and the understanding of the Ground of what is.

Many more than twenty-five universities exist in this and other countries. The situation is not going to be much better there. Some places are better than others in the same way the second from the last team in the NFL is probably better than the last team.

What is a young man or woman to do who has any suspicion that what he is most likely to be educated in is a version of some decadent modern ideology, even if it has the highest prestige and his professors are well-paid, published, and eloquent? Well, I suppose he is to enjoy the place for what it is, provided he has some inkling about what it is.

Anyone who arrives at a university usually carries with him two things: 1) his mind and 2) the ability to read. As Nietzsche says, “How malicious philosophers can be!” Of course, the reason we come to a university is supposedly to learn how mind is used and what books are worth reading.

Actually, certain books that fulfill both of these roles are found: they teach us what it means to think while we read them. I think that one or two books, if read in any university, can save us. I know about how the Chinese and Arabs control their universities, how politically correct ours are so that there is really little variety in the professoriate. But I have seen it happen.

Over the years, I have produced any number of lists of twenty-five books “to save your mind by.” Probably the ones listed in Another Sort of Learning remain the most accessible.

But for this year’s freshmen, sophomores, and upper classmen, in any university, be it Arizona State, Yale, Nebraska, or one of the Loyolas, I will recommend but two books. If they are carefully read during this academic year, the student will receive both a “shock” and a grounding in what is. The books are: Robert Sokolowski, The Phenomenology of the Human Person, and Peter Kreeft’s Jesus Shock. And, in case you were wondering, both authors have read, yes, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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