Long study of the history of many social organizations has convinced me of one thing: When any such organization dies -- be it family, business, nation, religion, civilization, or university, the cause of death is generally "suicide." Or, if we must be more specific, "suicide by self-deception."
Like most truths, this one has nothing very new about it. The Hebrews and the Greeks, who are our cultural parents, and our own western civilization descended from these two, have always agreed that the only sin, or at least the greatest sin, is pride, a particularly aggressive type of self-deception. And anyone who is concerned with the health of individuals knows well that neuroses and psychoses are basically simply forms of self-deception, combined with an obstinate refusal to face the facts of the situation.
This kind of illness is prevalent in all American higher education and in all the sub-divisions of it, existing, indeed, in a more obsessive and virulent form in the aspirant "Great Universities" than in the so-called "Great Universities" themselves. It is to be found in its acute form in Catholic education, in Jesuit education, and at Georgetown.
Of course, that is not what we are being told. Today, in education, as in government and in everything else, the propagandists flood us daily with rosy reports on how well things are going. Larger and larger expenditures of manpower, money and facilities (such as floor-space) are devoted to telling the world about the wonderful job being done in every organization worthy of the name from the Johnson Administration down (or up) to Georgetown University. Fewer and fewer people are convinced, or even listening, but in the process the money and facilities (if not the manpower) which could have been used on the goals of the organization are wasted on propaganda about what a wonderful job is being done, when any sensible person with half an eye can see that, every year, a poorer job is being done in the midst of self-deceptive clouds of expensive propaganda.
But beneath these clouds, ominous cracklings can be heard, even at Georgetown. If they come from within the University, they are drowned out with another flood of words, denials, excited pointings to a more hopeful, if remote, future, or by the creation of some new organizational gimmick, a committee or a new "Assistant Something-or-Other," to deal with the problem.
If, on the other hand, these criticisms come from outside the University, they are ignored or attributed to jealousy, sour grapes, or to some other unflattering personal motivation of the critic. When these criticisms come, as they often do, from some departing member of the faculty, they are greeted by reflections on his personal competence or emotional stability, both of which had been highly esteemed as long as he remained here. As a result, most departing faculty, to avoid such personal denigration, depart quietly, but they depart. Their reasons for leaving are then attributed to the higher pay to be obtained elsewhere, an explanation which fits in well with the Big Lie at GU, that all its problems would be solved if the University only had more money. Anyone who knows anything about the situation knows perfectly well three things: that Georgetown's problems would not be solved by more money and have not been, but, on the contrary, have grown steadily worse as the supply of money has increased; that resigning faculty have been leaving because they were discontented; and that the chief cause of that discontent has not been inadequate pay, but the generally chaotic and misguided Administration of the University. In the last two years, the Mathematics and Classics Departments, as well as the Law School, have seen their faculty depart in droves, but the kind of administration from which they were fleeing continues, even in the hands of different administrators
The judgement on what is wrong at Georgetown should not rest on verbiage from either defenders or denigrators; it can be based on facts. No university which wastes as much money, time and effort on non-educational matters as Georgetown does could possibly be doing a good job in educational matters. And it is no defense to say that every other university is doing the same. By non-educational matters I mean such things as building, parking, food-service, public-relations, planning, campus police, committees, paper-shuffling, traveling by University officials, and constant verbalizing on non-educational matters.
I'll admit that things are just as bad, and may be worse, at other universities. But this very fact makes it easier for Georgetown to become a better university. All it has to do is decide what an education is and do it, instead of driving hell-bent, as it now is, to become exactly like all other universities of the country. For those other universities are going, at high speed, in the wrong direction, as must be clear to any observer who has any idea what education should he and compares that idea with what is actually going on. Or, even if the observer has no idea what education should be, he can grasp, merely by looking and listening, that education is not healthy anywhere.
A few months ago, Newsweek asked, "Why is there no first-rate university in the nation's capital?" This assay created a minor ripple locally but did not divert the rulers of Georgetown an iota from their mad rush in the wrong directions. Their chief reaction to the Newsweek question was resentment. But any honest and observant person examining the local scene in higher education could have only one reaction: surprise that anyone should be either surprised or resentful at Newsweek's article. A judicious assessment by anyone who has any regard for real education would conclude that Newsweek had been too kind to us, for Georgetown, the best of the five local universities, is third-rate and deteriorating, and it does not help to see that our neighbor, the George Washington University, is fourth-rate and is deteriorating even more rapidly. What does hurt is to realize that Georgetown has, for years, had a golden opportunity, such as GW never could have, to make a great contribution to American education, but has, again and again, muffed that opportunity because of the increasingly frantic pursuit of strange, alien gods by the rulers of Georgetown.
Georgetown has had this opportunity for one simply stated but complexly true reason: because it was Catholic. But, instead of being Catholic, or even Jesuit, Georgetown has rudely turned its back on its one chance of making any contribution to American education and has instead almost totally destroyed its opportunity for becoming an excellent Catholic university and a good American university, in its frantic drive to become a fifth-rate Harvard. Those who vaguely feel this error, including the rulers of the University itself, correctly attribute it to "lack of leadership" on the part of those rulers. But again, in another rejection of their own traditions -- the traditions of the Christian West -- they neglect to define what they mean by leadership and, at the back of their minds, use a purely operational definition, that educational leadership is what poor misguided men like James Conant and Harold Dodds have done, or advocate doing. Any observer who has even a glimmering of an idea what education and leadership really imply and, in addition, knows what Conant and Dodds did to Harvard and Princeton, can only hope that Georgetown can be spared the Conant-Dodds influence and, instead, finds the way to real education and real leadership by getting back to our Christian heritage (not as indoctrination but as a technique for responsible cooperative activity in terms of real goals with real values).
The rulers of Georgetown University have never stopped to ask themselves: What is real education? What should we be trying to do? What can we do best, or better than anyone else around? What can our own traditions contribute to the improvement of American education? From the answers to these questions Georgetown could achieve the best undergraduate education in America and do it with less money than is now being wasted on the misguided, mis-emphasized, present drive to follow the so-called "great universities" down the slope after Harvard, Princeton, and Berkeley.
Georgetown cannot copy these institutions, even if they have been on the correct road (which they have not), because they are rich and G. U. will never be rich. A rich university, like Harvard with an endowment of over a billion dollars, can, perhaps, afford to make mistakes, and can, perhaps, afford to indulge in that faddism which is the chief bane of education in America, but G.U. cannot afford these things. Moreover, the effort to copy Harvard or Princeton is bound to fail when the men who make the decisions at G.U. do not really know what happened, or is happening, at Harvard or Princeton. They do not know that the innovations in education which began at Harvard and Princeton like the free elective system, the "case method", the tutorial and preceptorial systems, narrowly specialized departments with overly specialized undergraduate training, the College Board system of admissions, "General Education," "Advanced Standing," and many other innovations have contributed little to the improvement of American education and are coming to be recognized increasingly as expensive and temporary fads. But they have swept the country, except for those things like tutorial instruction or residential colleges which have proved too expensive to be copied by most universities.
Twenty years ago, in recognition of the injury being inflicted on undergraduate education by over-specialization, Harvard spent about $46,000 on a faculty committee which came up with the famous "Harvard Report on General Education." On the basis of that report, courses were set up at Harvard on "general education." Today, the undergraduate can take his choice from 94 courses in "General Education," the most recent of which is on computer programming. This is the kind of educational nonsense which goes on when an American university has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend. And this is the kind of nonsense which a growing Georgetown budget is bringing to G.U. This kind of nonsense will spread and continue to spread as long as there is money available to finance it and as long as university decision-makers refuse to define what they mean by education in analytical terms and continue instead to emphasize activity over thought and accept, without questioning, a purely operational definition which believes that "education is what goes on in universities especially at Harvard." Such a definition may be fine for administrative careerists, but it is death to real education, although the university administrators will not recognize their demise until students, rather than faculty, depart in droves from universities, a movement which will come when students decide that they want a real education rather than a diploma and will reconcile themselves to the fact that lack of a diploma may exclude them from entrance into the great bureaucratic structures of business, government, education and the professions, but will not prevent them from living a better life than is possible in such bureaucratic structures.
Education, correctly defined, means training toward growth and maturity to prepare a person to deal, in a flexible and successful way, with the problems of life and of eternity. It does not mean, as it increasingly is taken to mean by the educational operationalists who now control our educational bureaucracy, obtaining a ticket of admission to some other bureaucratic structure, however large and rich that may be.
Education in operational terms has no meaning (as all operational definitions have no meaning) because it has no reference outside itself, and all meaning must be based on reference to something outside the object being defined. Until recent centuries, meaning was defined in terms of purpose and goals, but, as teleology fell into disrepute, meaning came to mean context as a whole (a belief which has always been held in most Asiatic countries). Today, over-specialization and the great speed of change have destroyed, or almost destroyed, the context of everything, and we are reduced to purely operational definitions and meanings. But, since all operational definitions are solipsist, and everything in the world today has become isolated and subjective, any meaning in either teleological or contextual or even functional terms has become impossible and we are faced with the total triumph of the Meaningless and The Absurd.
American education has followed this process and is now speeding toward ruination of all education in terms of individual maturity and ability to cope with any whole human experience or meaning.
We might ask: Why is it necessary for Catholic education or for Jesuit education to follow that road to ruin? The reason they do so is clear enough. For more than a century, from 1830 to after 1940, Catholics in America lived in a ghetto. When American Catholics decided to leave their ghetto (right after the Jews and just before the Italians and Negroes), they did what any people fleeing a ghetto do: they uncritically embraced the outside world, without seeing that that world was moving rapidly toward increased chaos, corruption and absurdity. They abandoned completely a basic principle of the Christian West: that salvation is to be found, either for the individual or for the community, only in slow growth in terms of one's own traditions and background. If Catholic education had been willing to do that, it could have made a great contribution to American education and to American life, because the only thing which can save America or our world is to get back to the abandoned traditions of the Christian West and to resume the process of growth and development of our society on the basis of those traditions. By aping the un-Christianized, de-Westernized world of American life and American education outside the old Catholic ghetto, the Jesuits have betrayed Christianity, and the West, to a degree even greater than has occurred at Harvard or at Princeton. And now young people all over the country are trying desperately to get back to some kind of real, if primitive, Christianity, with little real guidance from their so-called teachers and clergy. What is even more ironical is that they, and the more progressive of their teachers, in their efforts to get back to the mainstream of Western Christian growth are trying to work out, by painful application, all those things (like multi-valued logic, or the role of daily good-works in Christian life) which were worked out within the Christian West long ago, but are now forgotten, and now have to be re-discovered as something new.
If Catholic education, and especially Jesuit education at G.U., had reformed itself in the true sense, by getting back to its own traditions and growing from that base, great contributions could have been made to an American educational system and an American life which are thirsting for them but falsely believe that they can be found only by blundering forward into an unexplored future (as in existentialist philosophy or in the contemporary flood of writings on theology) or by copying the age-old errors of Asia.
Moreover, on the basis of the Catholic Christian tradition of the West, enormous opportunities are offered for research and writing. The secular world's versions of economic theory or of the history of political theory, are biased, naive and mistaken. Many of their errors rest directly on their rejection of the Christian tradition. In my own field of history, the versions of the middle ages, of the renaissance, of the rise of science, of economic and constitutional history are still based on the anti-Catholic biases of the nineteenth century. The history of ideas in Western civilization cannot be understood by anyone who is not familiar with Western religion, and the Catholic version of it, from the inside. Yet all the widely read "authorities" on this subject are non-Catholic, generally non-Christian, and often anti-Catholic. As a result, they cannot understand what has happened or even organize the subject (except on a biographical basis). The history of these subjects has been distorted for years by anti-Catholic bias, but the task of straightening out these errors has been left to places like Harvard, instead of being done, as could have been more easily done, by Catholic campuses. Fifty years ago, the Protestant version of the rise of modern science as a reaction against medieval obscurantism was being corrected by a remarkable group of Catholic historians of science like Duhem and Tannery. Their work was never finished, because it was abandoned by Catholic scholars, until it had to be taken up by non-Catholics like Marshal Clagett, who had been trained at Harvard by George Sarton. The whole Whig interpretation of British history has to be re-written along lines which were sketched out, in a very unscholarly way, by Catholics like Christopher Hollis. But instead of doing these urgent tasks, Catholic universities are trying to adopt the kind of pedantic, secularized micro-research of the prevailing "great universities" and will leave these great tasks undone, until some one there, rather than here, does it, and has to do it, in all probability, by an almost superhuman effort of re-discovering, on his own, the necessary Christian Catholic tradition which will have vanished completely from the Catholic universities under the stresses of their efforts to become secularized fifth-rate Harvards. What a great lost opportunity! And what a pity!
Much of the process of deterioration of the West lies in the fragmentation and excessive specialization of life and of education. In the latter, this was reflected in the division of universities into exclusive departments, of departments into courses, of courses into preparation for successive examinations, the whole reflected in a purely arithmetic accumulation of credit hours (at so many dollars per credit hour), which mechanically entitle the student to a degree when some designated total is reached. It should be noted that this monstrous and destructive violation of all real educational process was never fully accepted at Harvard or Princeton, although it is now solidly entrenched at Jesuit universities.
Another example of the fragmentation process can be seen in the way in which the purely operational idea of education has blurred and destroyed the successive levels of the educational process. Today the activities of graduate schools have come to dominate and destroy the work of colleges, the work of colleges has come to distort and destroy the work of secondary schools, and the secondary schools have come to eclipse and eliminate the tasks of the elementary schools. As a result, each level is trying to do the work of the next higher level and refusing to do the work of its own level, all educational emphasis is on "advanced" preparation, "advanced standing," and "advanced placement", and students are everywhere being taught to fly before they can walk or even crawl. Today, first and second grade teachers are too concerned with how to shift a number system from base 10 to base 2 to find time to teach reading; high school teachers are so involved in the historiographical problems of the American Civil War that they never find time to train students in how to analyze or to outline, while, on the same level, biology students are so involved in the problems of the genetic code and molecular biology that they never learn the basic hygiene and physiology of their own bodies. And on the college level, all the emphasis is on seminars and research to the detriment of any training in understanding the world, or even in getting acquainted with the subject. Naturally, nowhere along the line does anyone find time to train students to read, to digest, to organize, to think, to correlate, with the result that every educational institution at all levels must now surround itself with remedial, counseling, and psychotherapeutic offices to do what the whole educational system should have done years before but which they all resolutely refused to do because they insisted on doing, not their own jobs, but the job of the next higher level of the educational system. One of the latest examples of this fad is Cornell's acceptance of "qualified" freshmen for their new 6-year Ph.D. program.
As a consequence of this process, it is today impossible for a decent undergraduate college to exist on the same campus as a burgeoning graduate school. This was the reason behind the student revolt at Berkeley; it was a revolt of undergraduates at the shabby treatment, neglect and exploitation they get from the fact that the undergraduate college there is drowning in that morass of undergraduate irrelevancies summed up in Clark Kerr's idea that the Berkeley campus was a "multiversity." But, of course, like everything today, this simple truth was buried in mountains of irrelevancies in all the discussions about the Berkeley fiasco, a consequence which is inevitable when Berkeley, and all the other American universities, are pouring out graduates who are untrained in either analysis or critical thinking, but instead have been trained in a narrow specialization whose verbiage is irrelevant outside its own field, except to the degree that it has diffused to other specialists as clichés and slogans
The reasons that a graduate school eclipses and strangles an undergraduate college are two: (1) because the faculty come to be chosen for what are regarded as qualifications for graduate instruction, instead of for the quite different qualifications needed for undergraduate teaching; and (2) the difference between the aims of the two levels become confused, so that undergraduate aims become submerged and lost and are replaced by departmental emphasis, in its own undergraduate teaching, on preparation for graduate school, despite the fact that only a minority, or even a very few, of its students are ever going to graduate school in that subject.
The consequences of this double process are fully evident in the recent history of many undergraduate institutions and perhaps most clearly in the School of Foreign Service. Twenty years ago the School of Foreign Service was completely autonomous; there were no departments, and there was no faculty rank and tenure. The faculty were concerned with teaching, and the courses were supposed to prepare graduates to understand international problems and to operate in the field of such problems. Neither the faculty nor the courses were aimed at preparing students for graduate schools. But, surprisingly, the School was, in fact, outstandingly good in preparing for work on the graduate level in any of the social science departments, such as history, economics, or political science, and was, indeed, perhaps the best preparation available for going to law school (this despite the fact that Father Walsh tried to exclude from the School all students who intended to go to law school). And, at the same time, the SFS did an excellent job preparing people for international work.
For years, I asked all returning alumni of the Foreign Service School if they were, on the basis of their post-graduation experiences, satisfied with their undergraduate education at the SFS. The overwhelming majority were very satisfied. Many said something to this effect: "In the years since I graduated from the School of Foreign Service, I have been in direct contact, and often in competition with, outstanding graduates from Harvard, Princeton, or other big name universities, and have consistently had the feeling that I had a better grasp of the problems we were dealing with than they did."
The reasons for this last statement have always seemed clear to me. Our students were trained to understand, and trained on a non-specialized basis, which included philosophy, religion, languages, and all three of the basic social sciences, while the Ivy League graduates, as often as not, had been trained on a far more specialized basis and trained as preparation for "research," not for dealing with foreign problems as ecological wholes. In fact, the need for the latter, which is increasingly recognized in foreign problems, in economic development, in adaptation of political institutions, or in community development, had to come into overspecialized departments of political science and economics from other disciplines which use such an ecological approach, such as undergraduate anthropology, non-experimental psychology and biological ecology.
Over the past twenty years, as Georgetown has tried to become "a Great University" (meaning a fifth-rate Harvard), University-wide departments have been established, the faculty for these departments have been recruited on quite a different basis, and the courses have been subtly changed from explanations of the subject to preparation for graduate work in that subject.
The most obvious change has been in standards of faculty recruitment -- or, as it is miscalled everywhere, "raising faculty standards." Undergraduates should be taught by men who have a broad understanding of the subject, who are themselves of broadly cultured background and who are, above all, good teachers. They should be men who understand students, the world, and the relationship of their subject to both of these, and they should be men who seek to impart understanding and do not confuse understanding with either knowledge or pedantry.
No "Great University" uses, or will use, standards such as these in hiring faculty. Instead, every aspirant "Great University" emphasizes earned degrees, the place where these were earned, research reputation, and the number of publications (regardless if these works are ever read by anyone). The disastrous consequence of faculty chosen and promoted on this basis on the aims and quality of undergraduate education must be obvious, especially in combination with the previously mentioned shift in course content from explanation and understanding of the subject to preparation for graduate work in that subject.
When these changes take place in a university in which other changes (already mentioned) are taking place, such as the passing of university control into the hands of careerist administrators and the loss of all conception of the meaning and value of education by university decision-makers who adopt purely operational ideas of educational purpose and educational activities, it is clear that the aspirant "Great University" rapidly becomes an educational sewer.
Real education requires a teleological or contextual (biological) understanding of educational purpose and meaning. It requires, beyond that, only three things: books, students, and faculty -- in that order, with the faculty less significant than good books and motivated students. In fact, a motivated student today can get a better real education (but no diploma) in any large urban public library than he can from the harassed and disconcerted faculty of the most highly touted multiversity.
Moreover, no solution of the present crisis of our society, of the personal problems and quandaries of the individual members of our society, nor of our multifarious educational problems, is possible or conceivable unless it is firmly rooted in our Western Christian heritage. This does not mean going back to anything we had before, but it does mean going back to our roots in the past, and growing onward from those roots, which must be found in a period in our past before the alien gods of material affluence, of power-thirsting, of sex-obsession, of egotism and existential self-indulgence, became the chief aims of life, eagerly embraced, as they now are, by our contemporary "trahison des clercs."