There is an old adage that a PhD is given to someone who knows everything there is to know about nothing. This is to say that as someone advances more and more in education, he will have to choose a field, then a sub-field, then finally a very precise issue in some topic within that sub-field on which to write a dissertation. That person might become the world’s foremost expert on the life cycle of African dung beetles, or the influence of Shakespeare on early 19th century Russian literature, or the architectural history of Plano, Texas.
Obviously, a person has to do preliminary studies to prepare to enter a doctoral program and might become extraordinarily well-educated in all manner of topics beyond his own specialty along the way and after earning his doctorate. So while the aphorism is ultimately untrue, there is still something right about it: simply because a person has an advanced degree within some larger field (biochemistry, American history, music theory, etc.,) does not necessarily imply that that he is truly an expert in the entirety of that larger field; it only implies expertise in the narrow sliver of that field which he focuses on. Much less does it imply that he is an expert in “science” or “history” or “art.” Yet often there is indeed such a delusion of grandeur in the academy, and even more so in those who look up to it and aspire to it.
In today’s world, some 18 year old Americans are shipping off to colleges where they will be taught remedial English skills, be coddled with trigger-warnings and safe-spaces, celebrate diversity by forcing everyone to share the same childish values and opinions as themselves, and complain that national election results are making them too distraught to take tests which they will then be allowed to skip. After four exorbitantly expensive years of this foolishness, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates will go on to call themselves “well-educated,” and they will be confirmed in this delusion by the society which they will then be poised to run.
There is nothing “higher” about this sort of education, except the greater availability of illicit substances. Students may be free to take all kinds of elective courses, often basing their choices on fleeting interests or even by factors having nothing at all to do with the content of the course itself (such as friends taking the course, having it at a certain time, etc.), or conversely, they will immediately be deeply plunged into their field of choice without ever being exposed to anything outside of it, putting them on the fast-track to knowing everything about nothing. And all of this after a primary and secondary education which probably left them with little more than a rudimentary understanding of algebra, a couple of names and events in world history, and some loosely connected ideas about science. After all, why should one bother to master these topics when they will not be part of one’s profession, especially since in a pinch all the answers can be accessed instantly by consulting WikiOracle? All the specialization without regard for the whole and all the reckless ambition and vanity which can drive educational pursuits create a paradoxical trajectory of learning for the sake of income or for the sake of advancing a political agenda without regard for what one would do if he made enough money to have no need to work anymore or actually accomplished that political agenda. It’s an upward trajectory, but where does it lead? We will never know – the tower is crumbling, just like at Babel.
Fulton Sheen was complaining about some of these exact imbalances of higher education some 60 years ago. Take a second to let that sink in.
It goes without saying that standards of education have dropped over the ages. What “well-educated” used to mean for an adolescent was having obtained serious proficiency in the classical group of liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – in that order) as well as literature and history, plenty of Latin, and maybe some Greek as well.
Today it means “having a degree.” The argument from authority no longer works so well when appealing to the words of God or the Church, but one can appeal to the opinions of “experts” without feeling a touch of shame. If only Jesus had gone to an Ivy League and wore a lab coat!
The salve for this wound is precisely a return to older standards and methods of education. Since college has in many ways become the new high school, colleges ought to be teaching students at least the basics of the world which they are about to step into, no? Sure, let kids have a major, but a strong core curriculum is absolutely indispensable in these mad times. The tendency toward rapid specialization in education has gone too far. As each individual learns only his own language, the common language disappears, and so too does a recognizably unified culture. We are building a tower to the sky, but our base is shaky and nobody knows anything but his own special craft. The polymaths are gone. Will the West ever see another Alcuin? Another Dante? Another da Vinci? If we do, it will be in spite of our educational priorities, not because of them.
Instead of turning to the treasures of our own culture and seeking to present them in the most effective way possible, Catholic schools often get distracted by trying to be on the “cutting edge.” It is a losing race, of course… We are outspent, especially in primary and secondary education. Most Catholic schools will never be able to beat secular schools at their own game even if they pay the hefty fees of conscience and identity. But we can offer the richness of the Western tradition from the platform of revealed truth without indoor plumbing, let alone without an iPad for every student. Perhaps endlessly trying to “keep up with Principal Jones” is a waste of our time, money, and energy, when we already have on the shelf an incredible product that we own by Divine right and therefore have an educational monopoly on.
We need an academic Pentecost to undo our academic Babel. A rigorous and holistic Catholic liberal arts education is the God-given way to make that happen. Otherwise, our universities will be full of sub-curricula which are so “united” that they will create students who are too “diverse” to share significant goals with each other in a meaningful way.
I will suggest in harmony with the mind of Professor MacIntyre that we as a Church ought to focus much more energy on building up our own communities in sound doctrine and morals, in addition to providing a solid education in secular knowledge. Perhaps parishes could invest “real money” in local homeschooling programs. But whatever the solution is, it will necessarily involve an openness to what has come – and is coming – from above.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563