Magazine article The American Conservative

Teaching the West

Magazine article The American Conservative

Teaching the West

Article excerpt

What liberal learning means for Europe-and America

Almost 85 years ago, philosophers and literary intellectuals as diverse as Edmund Husserl, George Santayana, and Paul Valéry, aware of the declining influence of Christianity, spoke of the "crisis of Western civilization." All three placed their hopes on the revival of the classical sources of the West, with Valéry insisting on acknowledgment of a debt to Roman law and Roman Catholicism.

Husserl and Santayana, even in their prescience, could not have imagined the multicultural diversity that confronts todays Europe, a continent unable to control its borders or assimilate the flood of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Europe seems to be living off of a dying past, perhaps nearing the end of a great culture. Morals apart, the birthrate of the native European population alone would attest to decline.

The ruling elites of Brussels and the European capitals seem confident that the constitutive elements of what was once called Christendom can be maintained without reference to their source. It is that source which commands our present attention: at issue is not just European identity but Western identity, its distinctiveness and defense. The course of higher learning in America offers a template.

Higher education in the 13 English colonies that became the United States of America dates to the arrival of the Puritans in the Bay Colony in Massachusetts. Within ten years of the Puritan landing there came into being the institutions we now know as the Boston Latin School (1635) and Harvard University (1636). The New England grammar schools and seminaries that soon followed were established to train youth to become ministers of the gospel and to fulfill civic and other important offices. In the words of one of the original trustees of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton):

Tho' our great intention was to erect a seminary for education ministers of the Gospels, that we might have a sufficient number of pious and well qualified men to supply the demands of our churches ... yet we hope it will be a means of training up men that will be useful to other professions - ornaments of the state as well as the church.

It may have been difficult for the early American college student to grasp how he would one day be useful to church and state as he labored over his Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. During the first years of study at a colonial college the newly arrived student was called upon to improve his skills in the Greek language and to advance his study of logic and rhetoric, to which he may have been minimally introduced in the late years of his Latin grammar school education.

He was called upon to reread in college many of the Latin authors whom he had previously encountered. Among those most commonly read in the first year of college were Virgil, Cicero, Horace, and Livy. In 1787, the Harvard student would also have learned Hebrew or French, rhetoric, arithmetic, chronology, history, and the Greek Testament. The Yale curriculum was more or less the same; that of Columbia and Princeton did not differ substantially.

Whether or not the early American college student appreciated the rigor of the training he was receiving, the value of that training produced numerous state legislators, governors, Supreme Court judges, cabinet officers, senators, and even a few presidents. It was the education that shaped the outlook of the founders of the American republic.

Although many of those early educational institutions eventually became some of the country's most distinguished colleges and universities, it was not until the establishment of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 that the United States acquired a true university in the modern sense of the term. Until the last quarter of the 19th century the model for higher education in America remained the English college, with its programs of liberal studies designed to prepare students broadly for careers in business and in the professions. …

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