"You are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?" – Plato, Apology
In the course of his trial, Socrates poses this challenge to his fellow citizens. For the first of all the great philosophers in the Western tradition, the "care of the soul" – the pursuit of knowledge and virtue – is the chief task imposed on us as rational human beings. Knowledge is both desirable for its own sake and as a means of forming citizens for freedom; in fact, the pursuit of knowledge is, for Socrates, one of the ways in which we can exercise responsible citizenship.In the early 21st century, in America's elite universities, institutions renowned across the globe for "wisdom and power," there is a growing mood of discontent. Having become increasingly skeptical about knowledge itself, our most prestigious educational institutions now find themselves ill-equipped to educate youth for the common good. Or so an emerging consensus would have us believe.
Criticism of higher education is nothing new; among conservatives, it constitutes a sport that never seems to go out of season. Yet, in recent years, criticism has arisen from within mainstream liberal academia. Two books from Harvard administrators are signs of this spirit of self-criticism. Derek Bok, former and currently interim president at Harvard, has written Our Underachieving Colleges; and Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, has just published Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education – a central contention of which is the dismal judgment that the "ideal of liberal education lives on in name only."
In much less detached prose, Tom Wolfe's last novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, released in 2004, depicted undergraduates at an elite university (Mr. Wolfe called the place Dupont University, but rumors abounded that his target was Duke) as booze-saturated, athlete-worshipping, sexual libertines. Reviewers, particularly from the academic world, were less than generous. But, if we are to believe Rolling Stone magazine's stunning recent expose, "Sex at Duke: Raging Parties, Random Hookups & the Girls Who Say the Lacrosse Players Aren't Guilty," Mr. Wolfe's book is a fairly accurate description of drinking and mating habits in the elite social world of schools like Duke.
By comparison with an average night of partying in Duke's fraternity system, the drinking bouts and sexual shenanigans of Animal House , the 1978 frat house party film, seem like the lost episodes of Happy Days. One frat hosts a "foam party," described in Rolling Stone as "a sweaty, alcohol-soaked bacchanalia ... like taking an enormous bubble bath with hundreds of strangers."
But there is an even more striking difference between Greek life at Duke and Animal House. The inhabitants of the film frat were academic failures: "Seven years of college down the drain," was Bluto Blutarsky's lament upon learning that he'd been expelled. By contrast, the rigorous amorality of the Duke party scene does not mean that these students are slackers. "Night Duke," as it is known, gives way to "Day Duke," during which time students are consumed by academic demands.
The two feed one another. What emerges from the Rolling Stone interviews with students is a unifying devotion: a craven desire for approval, from the classroom to the bedroom. The picture of Duke student life is a community that is completely structured, superficially successful and utterly vacuous. A glimpse into the emptiness can be had in one student's confessional aside: "If there's ever a time when I just sit around, I get horrible anxiety." Beneath the shining surface of perfectly assembled appearances – the right clothes, the right schools, the right social connections – lurks anxiety and depression, the individual and social costs of which are dramatically detailed in Madeline Levine's powerful new book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
For all the youthful effervescence involved in the undergraduate penchant for turning sex into a "sport," there is something chillingly unromantic about it all. Rolling Stone calls sex at Duke "a way of life, a source of constant self-scrutiny and self-analysis." An attractive young woman comments, "I've never been asked out on a date in my entire life – not once." Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink. "'I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs," she says.
For all of the apparent insouciance about sex, the interviewees confess to gnawing anxiety and uncertainty. As essayist Wendell Berry once observed, "Sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of 'naturalness,' ease and candor between men and women. It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty and fear." In the midst of this carnivale atmosphere of sexual freedom, colleges try to erect clear boundaries. The result is a vertiginous movement from unbridled freedom to severe legality. Mr. Lewis describes Harvard's date rape policy, for example, as creating "an artificial and infantilizing sexual world." And that may be the most telling and painful paradox of liberal sexual mores. Universities have ended up precisely with what they initially wanted most to avoid – legalism regarding sex.
For the sake of knowledge
But that's not the only place where contemporary universities are in trouble. The failure of elite universities to deliver on their core mission is the lament running through Mr. Lewis' Excellence Without a Soul. With a curriculum void of coherence and faculty lacking a sense of teaching as a noble calling, students find that education offers no sense of "larger purpose in life."
Calls for reform, of which Mr. Lewis' book is but the latest in a long list, must overcome the vested interests of both students and faculty, who have an unspoken agreement about their own freedom. The laissez-faire attitude of the precocious teenager meets the professional libertarianism of the faculty. Mr. Lewis is not the first to wonder whether the turning of students into consumers is to the clear detriment of the ideals of liberal education.
In this atmosphere, universities can easily lose track of the one thing necessary for a university, the one thing that it alone can foster: the cultivation of the intellect. As Mr. Lewis notes, what is distinctive about college life is the possibility it offers students for a short but crucial period in the years between adolescence and adulthood to become "immersed in the life of the mind." College is freedom for , not freedom from.
In his classic statement The Idea of the University, John Henry Newman argues that liberal education can be justified only if "knowledge is capable of being its own end." Although Newman defended professional training, he argued forcefully that universities ought to develop in students a philosophical habit of mind, a habit of wonder and an ability to trace the relationships among different parts of knowledge. One of the reasons for the inclusion of all branches of knowledge in the university curriculum is that even though students "cannot pursue every subject, they will still gain from living among those who represent the whole circle."
There are manifold obstacles to realizing Newman's idea in today's university. Given the increasing emphasis on specialization in faculty research, few if any faculty can be said even to approximate representing the "whole circle." And of course students do not "live among" the faculty anyhow. The shared libertarianism of faculty and students results in a diminishing number of contact hours between students and faculty, and even between faculty, who rarely know colleagues outside their departments.
Specialization breeds an inevitable individualism and elevates narrow expertise over breadth of learning. Clearly a university cannot do without rigorous, specialized knowledge in its faculty. The challenge Mr. Lewis and others pose is whether universities can create incentives to balance focus with breadth.
This would entail another sense of liberalism. Such a liberality or generosity of spirit would revive a proper appreciation of amateurism – not in the sense of an absence of serious training but in the etymological meaning of the word "amateur," from the French for "lover."
In an academic context, an amateur would be one who has a passionate enthusiasm for knowledge, an infectious joy at human inquiry itself and a commitment to transforming students from dependent absorbers of information into colleagues in a shared pursuit of knowledge. This spirit of wonder is the most compelling embodiment of Newman's claim that knowledge is an end in itself. Such a spirit knows no bounds – it can be equally present in an English poetry class, a chemistry lab, a music tutorial or a philosophy seminar.
The defense of liberal education as both invigorating for young souls and an indirect catalyst for social transformation stretches from Socrates to W.E.B. DuBois, who in his famous Souls of Black Folk penned the most eloquent defense of liberal education ever composed by an American. DuBois is best known for his debate with Booker T. Washington over post-Reconstruction civil rights strategies. A consequence of Washington's more conservative approach is the continued exclusion of African-Americans from higher education.
Although ignored in contemporary retellings of this standoff, DuBois makes higher education the centerpiece of his argument. For DuBois, this was about more than simply equal opportunity. To refuse African-Americans access to a truly liberal education, to relegate them to training in trades, was to deny their full humanity. Every other sort of education renders human beings fit to perform this or that role in business or society; it makes them serviceable, as we say. But this is to treat education – and human beings – in a merely instrumental fashion.
DuBois counters, "The final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure and inspiring ends of living, – not sordid money getting, not apples of gold." DuBois shares Socrates' objections to a citizenry that gives no thought to true education, to the state of the soul, to pondering what DuBois calls the "riddle of existence." DuBois asserts, "the true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes."
Losing track of its primary goal, higher education lapses into the sort of confused state Mr. Lewis describes and fosters in students the sense that they are nothing more than hollow consumers for whom success is a well-padded resume. DuBois was confident that a truly liberal education could be truly liberating, that it could provide a counter to the instrumentalism that threatens to crowd out an appreciation of life's larger purposes.
Another way to express DuBois' argument is to say that he, like Socrates, takes the term "soul" seriously, as indicating a sense of what is higher and lower, better and worse, in human life. The word "soul" also figures in the title of Mr. Lewis' book about Harvard. But what does Mr. Lewis mean by "soul"? Can contemporary academics use the term without putting it in scare quotes to indicate its status as a relic from a bygone age of religious primitivism? Without snickering, can we seriously pose to our students the challenge Socrates posed to the Athenians, who in this case are a pretty good stand-in for Americans? Can we issue the challenge to give more care to the soul than to the body?
These questions bring us round to Duke and Tom Wolfe's satire, which seizes on the problematic status of the soul in the contemporary university. Mr. Wolfe's title character Charlotte Simmons brings with her to Dupont a conception of soul she inherits from her devoutly Christian mother, who uses the word soul without any hint of irony or doubt. By contrast, one of Charlotte's professors, a Nobel winner for his work in neuroscience, uses the term "soul" advisedly. The self, he asserts, is "nothing more than a 'transient composite of materials from the environment.' " In an interesting convergence between the sciences and the humanities, the dissolution of the self into a series of intersecting impersonal forces is also a prominent feature of an influential postmodern philosophy.
Mr. Wolfe's book suggests a subtle link between the demotion of the soul to a ghost in a machine and the exhaustion of young adult life in a series of activities – work, study, drinking, sex – lacking any overarching sense of mission. If that's right, then the problems facing the modern university in its attempt to recover its liberal arts mission go much deeper and may be more intractable than any of its contemporary critics have thus far acknowledged.
Beyond the herd
There is no easy, short-term corrective for what ails higher education. But, for parents of bright students with aspirations for more than mere social or career advancement, there is a short-term answer, a paradoxical one given what we have argued thus far. Be better consumers, tougher negotiators and don't follow the herd of parents who mindlessly rattle off a list of acceptable schools. The converse of the truth concerning competition among students for admission to selective schools is that schools compete very hard to lure good students. They need to be forced to compete even harder.
And wherever your children end up going to college, urge them to seek out the best professors, which is not the same as an entertaining professor who grades easily. Even in the midst of an otherwise bleak environment, an encounter with a gifted teacher, a latter-day Socrates, can make all the difference.