It is no small irony that the modernist, scientistic perspective on education and the postmodern, critical theoretical approach share a fundamental conceit regarding the nature of power and knowledge, even with their significant philosophical differences and mutual disdain. Indeed, they seem to be united in the presumption that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between knowledge and power. Each is the mother of the other, each creating and sustaining the reality to which the other points. For the modernist, knowledge produces power, instantiates it, and permits its use. For the postmodernist, power produces knowledge and creates an inherently oppressive “truth” that provides some with freedom and others only bondage. Whichever side of the modern/postmodern coin one takes up, the central presumption made is that education is a vehicle for power and that power is, in the end, the only thing that truly matters, the only thing worth pursuing, and the only thing about which higher education should be concerned. 

Thus, higher education is rendered an essentially utilitarian matter insofar as knowledge is sought after (or maintained) not as a good in itself but rather as an instrument by which power and control are obtained, maintained, asserted, and employed in the pursuit of yet more power and control. With this perspective, knowledge cannot be seen as the complement of wisdom and beauty or as vital to the edification of the human soul and its flourishing. The fundamental and inescapably moral and spiritual context of both the pursuit of knowledge and of knowledge itself is disavowed at the outset by both the modernist and postmodernist approaches, predictably producing what some scholars have correctly identified as the contemporary “moral mess of higher education” and, thus, what others have convincingly argued constitutes “the death of learning.”

The “soul of the American university,” historian George Marsden argues, is at present in more than just profound disarray but actually in serious danger of ceasing to exist at all. Indeed, in large measure, the contemporary university has become an essentially soulless entity. Over the last century, we have witnessed what Marsden and other scholars have noted is the steady “decline of the secular university” as a center of moral orientation and instruction, a decline brought about by the university’s trivialization of its mission and (intentional) misunderstanding of its core purpose and meaning. Having been systematically unmoored from its founding (pre-modern, Christian) principles and spiritual core, the contemporary (i.e., modern and postmodern) university is a place of established unbelief. Even further, not just established unbelief in God but in the possibility of anything transcendent or soul-transforming, of belief in anything having anything more than simple utility in the service of entirely contingent human desires and self-selected ends. 

The university is now, to a stunning degree, a place where the pursuit of truth has been all but replaced by the pursuit of power. The moral summons to seek greater wisdom and develop virtuous character has been, in large measure, substituted with the self-serving quest for knowledge, and the power it affords, divorced from any substantive moral constraint. Indeed, as John Ralston Saul has noted, “the exercise of power, without the moderating influence of any ethical structure, [has rapidly become] the religion of these new elites.” Higher education has been rendered as either a purely technical enterprise of rational minds and amoral science or merely a breeding ground for permanent revolution and never-ending radical social change.

The contemporary university is a place of established unbelief.

The consequence of all of this is that the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of higher education has become profoundly uninteresting and inhuman (even anti-human) because it has been emptied of its necessary commitment to moral substance, spiritual depth, enduring wisdom, ennobling beauty, and transcendent truth—the very things that give life to the university and sustain it as a meaningful institution. Such is the unavoidable result of the fact that both modernist and postmodernist visions are rooted in what is essentially a “theology of power” and an “ethic of nihilism.” The scientistic and the activistic worldviews are each haunted at every turn by their groundlessness, their fundamental inability to sustain their moral purpose and provide any transcendent meaning or purpose for anything at all. Each worldview is rooted, in its own particular way, in the basic assumptions of secular humanism. Thus, each seeks to describe the nature of human existence, culture, meaning, truth, knowledge, beauty, and morality in entirely immanent or “this-worldly” terms. Within a postmodern perspective, human beings and all they produce (i.e., art, culture, literature, science, etc.) are thought of as merely the contingent products of impersonal historical processes and arbitrary political structures. The modernist worldview, for its part, takes these very same things to be nothing more than the meaningless outcome of the deterministic operations of various blind, mechanical forces of nature.

In the end, whatever other disagreements the modern and the postmodern might entail, things such as truth, meaning, knowledge, and morality are little more than the socially or personally useful constructions of implacable history and impersonal nature. Truth and morality are important only insofar as they manifest some degree of instrumental value in the face of our ever-changing needs and desires in a fundamentally meaningless and purposeless world. The inevitable consequence of such thinking is that not only does the university become a soulless and morally listless entity, but so too does all of culture and social life. In fact, it seems that the only thing left for us to do once either modern or postmodern thought is fully embraced is to work out the most useful ways of dominating one another, the best ways to shout down, cancel, and, ultimately, eradicate one another. Such is, I am afraid, the all-too-predictable endpoint of the theology of power and the ethics of nihilism currently reigning in contemporary higher education. 

I wish to conclude here by suggesting that things in higher education need not be quite as bleak as they seem at the moment. It is not too late to reverse the downward spiral of nihilism and discord into which higher education has thrown itself. I will argue that for higher education to achieve its fullest and intended purpose, it must first be seen as an intrinsic and virtuous good necessary to sustain an intellectually productive and morally fruitful culture. However, for such a view to make sense, our understanding of the purpose and meaning of education must be grounded in a deeper and more fundamental vision of human beings and flourishing than either modernism or postmodernism can provide. Higher education—if it is to be both truly “higher” and genuinely “education”—must offer an account of what really is “the case” (i.e., the truth) about our human “being-in-the-world,” and one that spans all disciplinary endeavors, methodologies, and aspirations. Granted, modern and postmodern educators might argue that this is precisely what they are doing. However, in as much as each actively rejects the possibility of transcendent truth and dismisses the moral nature of human knowing and being, they both abdicate the only viable path that can meaningfully ground the mission of higher education and, thereby, avoid continued crisis, discord, nihilism, and anomie.

A Return to a Pre-Modern Education

A medieval scholar studies in a garden, symbolizing the holistic pursuit of knowledge, resolving the crisis of higher education
Knowledge can only be understood in its moral context

Significantly, what I am calling for here is a return to an essentially “pre-modern” understanding of the aims and meaning of education, one that is deeply attentive to learning in its moral, spiritual, intellectual, and practical totality—education as a matter of soul-formation. It is in this sense that I believe that higher education must serve more than just utilitarian ends or radical political agendas. For the university to fulfill its essential nature and purpose, it must be about the serious business of seeking and defending the true, the good, and the beautiful. It must also articulate (in as sophisticated and holistic a way as possible) the meaning of the good life as one of moral and intellectual excellence, virtue, and love.

Higher education has been emptied of its necessary commitment to moral substance.

This requires a firm recognition that, as Anthony Kronman puts it in his book The Assault on American Excellence, “some ways of living are better than others.” Additionally, as political philosopher Michael Sandel tells us, the “avowedly higher purpose [of higher education] is to prepare [students] to be morally reflective human beings and effective democratic citizens, capable of deliberating about the common good.” Echoing these sentiments, Stewart Goetz, a professor of philosophy and religion, reminds us that “the best way of being a human being includes the development of human capacities for intelligence, imagination, wit, etc. The more a person develops these capacities, the more fulfilled (perfected) he is as a human being.” In the end, Goetz continues, “The purpose of the university is to provide the liberating knowledge which enables the cultivation of human excellence.” However, such aims can only be achieved or even realistically aspired to if the pursuit of truth in both knowledge and wisdom, as well as practical reverence for the good and the beautiful, is taken seriously as the very reason for the university’s existence in the first place.

In addition to providing an academic context in which truth can be sought, reverenced and humbly served, the university has equally another vital cultural and intellectual function to fulfill. Truth—the aim of any serious educational enterprise—necessarily involves the coherent articulation of the meaningful implications of truth and, in so doing, the illumination of the moral and evaluative element at the heart of any and all truth claims. Thus, higher education qua education must be centrally concerned with articulating the meaning of truth and ethics, differentiated from the grounding nihilistic assumptions of modern and postmodern thought. 

In this view, then, higher education is understood to be an intrinsically and inescapably moral enterprise, one whose central aim must and can only be the illumination, expansion, and transformation of the human soul. Only by being so oriented can higher education achieve its essential purpose of cultivating a flourishing society nurtured and sustained by virtuous, knowledgeable, and wise men and women. As BYU professor Daniel Frost reminds us, “Far from being the enemy of academic study, intellectual and moral commitments make meaningful inquiry possible. Commitments do not frustrate the search for truth; they are, in fact, necessary for it to proceed at all.” Indeed, I believe that it is in light of this central reality that we can begin to tackle the most profound question confronting higher education:  What does it mean to be a person?

Higher education must serve more than just utilitarian ends.

It is only in earnestly seeking to address this question that all other intellectual work and ennobling activities of the university can be brought into sharp focus, regardless of the domestic interests or subject matter of particular disciplines. Higher education as the enlargement of the soul by pointing it toward the true, the good, and the beautiful is equally a fundamentally human and a divine enterprise. Higher education can become an experience whose realization is dependent on our maintaining a deep and abiding commitment to understanding, in as full and fruitful a manner as possible, what exactly it means to be a soul in the first place.

An Alternative Approach

Scholars build a book bridge over troubled waters, representing unity and the pursuit of knowledge overcoming the crisis in higher education.
Virtue-based learning is still possible

By way of an alternative to both the modern and postmodern conceptions of the purpose of higher education, the view I wish to defend is one rooted not only in an understanding of the nature of human nature as founded in a transcendent, divine reality but one which presumes human freedom to be constitutive of human existence itself, both its foundation and its aim. Indeed, the reality and the possibilities of human freedom are absolutely central to any meaningful conception of higher education. Only insofar as the academy endeavors to free us from ignorance and error, as well as towards a more fully expansive understanding of ourselves as moral beings whose lives have intrinsic worth, dignity, and purpose, can we even legitimately claim to be about the work of education in the first place.

In contrast, for the modernist and the postmodernist, while human freedom is spoken of, and often quite enthusiastically, in the final analysis, genuine freedom is denied by both. The scientistic presumption is that human beings are nothing more than particular parts of an all-encompassing causally efficacious, purposeless, and meaningless material universe and, thus, are beings whose lives possess only contingent worth and evanescent meaning. On the other hand, per the postmodern, critical theory view, freedom is an illusion foisted on beings who are, in reality, merely the arbitrarily constructed products of various impersonal structures and systems, the invisible and dominating operations of which are presumed to permeate all social, political, and cultural life and history. Genuine freedom, real purpose, and substantive and enduring meaning have no legitimate place in either of these conceptual formulations, and neither do such things as truth and morality.

Knowledge is always and only ever truly virtue.

Ultimately, then, when faced with the question “What is a person?,” both the modernist and the postmodernist must—if they are to be consistent with their own assumptions—answer: nothing much. Whether seen to be the site at which the impersonal forces of nature play themselves out or merely an intersection at which various systems of oppression happen to meet, neither perspective affords much meaning or any real freedom to the human person. Transience, contingency, and causal happenstance are the order of the day. Thus, the person as a moral agent, divinely invested with purpose and possibility, simply disappears into what C. S. Lewis trenchantly termed “the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect all together.” For both the modernist and the postmodernist, freedom is presumed to be the product of knowledge and the power it affords.

Advocates of both perspectives declare their commitment to freedom through the stripping away of ignorance. In both cases, however, the reality they seek to unmask is one in which persons are reduced to simply being the playthings of all manner of impersonal forces, systems, structures, and material circumstances, subjects constructed and conditioned by the purposeless historical and biological happenstance. In place of ignorance, higher education in these models offers no real freedom but rather a painful awareness of our inescapable slavery to powerful and uncaring abstractions. In such educational visions, there is nothing truly human at work; there is no freedom to conform to the reality of the good, obey truth, or love beauty. Neither intellectual nor moral humility can find a “safe space” among the reductive schemes of either modern scientism or postmodern activism, as such attributes arise only in response to the call to goodness, virtue, and compassion. 

When the animating concern of higher education is the animating concern of truth, however, it becomes clear that not only is the academic endeavor to aim at an increase in knowledge but also the cultivation of wisdom and goodness. The cultivation of these attributes can only take place in a setting in which knowledge of ourselves and the truth of the world is never divorced from the moral and spiritual context of its discovery and application. Knowledge, in this view, is not power, nor is the search for knowledge the pursuit of power, but rather knowledge is always and only ever truly virtue, the correspondence of truth and action in the concreteness of one’s daily life and conduct. Beings intended to flourish in freedom, to be virtuous and wise, must be educated to aspire to and achieve the freedom and virtue they were intended to have. 

However, education must be such that truth and its moral implications are front and center in all our academic endeavors. Freedom, in this view, “is a function of our veracity; freedom does not mean arbitrary selection, but adherence to what is best.” In short, freedom is neither a comforting illusion foisted on us by evolutionary fiat or by the occult operations of unjust systems of socially constructed oppression, nor is it the exercise of arbitrary and unbounded will. Rather, freedom is found in “wanting what is truly good, not imposing what we want.” In a fundamental sense, it is the true, the good, the beautiful, and virtue itself, that grounds human freedom and makes moral aspiration both possible and genuinely meaningful. Indeed, as the Catholic philosopher D.C. Schindler has shown, “freedom is a condition for the continuing affirmation of the priority of the good.” In the end, then, it is not power that shall make us free, but only truth.

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