The "higher education system" in the United States has metastasized to the point that the body politic will soon be unable to sustain it. Tuition and fees have grown at more than three times the cost of living in the last two decades, outstripping even the rise in the cost of medical care. These enormous costs reflect the burden of a tenured professoriate that is increasingly well paid and decreasingly burdened with identifiable classroom duties. At the same time, the value of the education that it provides is vanishing, even when measured in terms of the financial bottom line. Only a minority of college graduates secures a job that in any sense "requires" a college-educated holder, while total college debt now dwarfs the aggregate of consumer debt and approaches that of all mortgages. At the same time, it is harder and harder to maintain with a straight face that students are--by engaging with pop culture studies, turgid French semiotic theorizing, or left-wing activism--acquiring the intangible and ineffable values of a liberal education, as classically understood. The higher education "bubble" threatens soon to burst, with consequences more calamitous than the recent collapse of the booms in Internet companies or high-risk mortgages.
1. Bacon and Rousseau: The Two Towers
It is essential to begin by examining the intellectual roots of the current crisis in higher education. To do so, we can do no better than to turn to the works of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), the great humanist scholar of the last century. Babbitt was a professor of comparative literature at Harvard for forty years. With Paul Elmer More, Babbitt led the movement in American intellectual life known as the New Humanism, a forerunner of the American conservatism of Kirk, Weaver, and Buckley. Babbitt's 1908 book Literature and the American College is a searing and prescient critique of the progressive movement as it had begun to take hold of American higher education. (1)
We make a grave mistake if we think that the problems of academic gigantism (Russell Kirk's "Behemoth State University") began with Sputnik or the G. I. Bill. The spiritual crisis of higher education has roots far deeper, extending back to the very opening of the modern era in seventeenth-century Europe. Babbitt saw Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as typifying the turn from the classical tradition to the modern fascination with technology as power. Thirty-five years after Babbitt's book, the British philosopher and literary scholar C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)--whose masterpiece on the philosophy of education, The Abolition of Man, appeared in 1943 reached the same conclusion about Bacon's central role.
Neither Babbitt nor Lewis was in any sense opposed to the knowledge generated by the flowering of the science of nature in the early modern period. They both noted, however, that modern science was (as Lewis put it) "born in an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour." (2) Bacon, the great promoter and propagandist for scientific research as a public enterprise, embodies all that was "unhealthy" and "inauspicious" about that milieu. Bacon asked that Nature be "put to the rack" and forced to reveal her secrets. He recommended that any thought about the ends or purposes of nature (teleology) be relegated to theology; instead, practical men should impose their own wills upon the raw material of nature by better understanding the isolated propensities of the elements and particles making up material things. Lewis sees a striking similarity between Francis Bacon ("the great trumpeter of the new era") and Marlowe's Faust. Lewis points out that science and magic were twins, born at the same time and of the same impulse, the unprincipled quest for power in service of unbridled desire. "Knowledge is power," Bacon declaims.
By displacing the contemplation of essences and final causes from the study of nature, Bacon and his followers ensured the doom of that what Babbitt called the "law for man" and what Lewis called "the Tao," the basis for objective value, the set of "practical principles known to all men by Reason." (3) Inevitably, man himself came within the scope of a scientifically disenchanted (and ultimately denatured) "Nature," a realm of blind forces subject to technical manipulation, in place of the ordered cosmos (both macrocosm and microcosm) of the classical tradition (from Plato and Aristotle to Cicero, Augustine, and the Christian Platonists and Aristotelians of the high Middle Ages). From that point on, Western man was unable to distinguish between ordered and disordered affections. Reason became, as Hume put it, the abject slave of the passions, a technically proficient ability to scratch whatever itches.
Babbitt demonstrates that it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who first grasped the "liberating" potential of the ethical nihilism implicit in Baconian Science. If Nature (including human nature) is blind and dumb, then each individual being is free to follow its own whims, shrugging Off the constraints of conventional morality as nothing more than the heavy hand of a dead past. Science has debunked the moralists of the past as superstitious worshippers of a rational and meaningful order thought to predate the emergence of the individual consciousness. instead, human beings must be "compelled to be free," taught to treat every felt impulse within as an unquestionable authority, fully realizing Plato's nightmarish vision of the "democratic soul" in Book VIII of The Republic.