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Standpoint: Academic Ideals


Originally published in Standpoint.

When Plato established his Academy in Athens in 387 BC, he laid a foundation for education in the West that regarded knowledge as inseparable from character. In the end, he said, a man’s intellect or cleverness or skills couldn’t help him if he lacked virtue. “A person with a bad soul will govern his life badly.”

This Western ideal is worth recalling now, as more governments struggle to manage the costs of higher education. It has become a major issue during the US election season, as worries mount about escalating tuition fees and student debt to cover them. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 75 per cent of adults think higher education has become unaffordable — and most believe it’s not worth the money.

Liberals see a “student loan crisis” and denounce cuts in government spending on education. Newspapers such as the New York Times blame for-profit colleges for “defrauding” students with deceptive recruitment policies. Conservatives, for their part, criticise the expansion of federal loan programmes for encouraging inflated tuition rates and student indebtedness.

Mostly missing from the discussion, however, is meaningful talk about the fundamental purposes of higher education and how best to achieve them.

So far, conservatives are not contributing much to this debate. Too many have focused narrowly on costs, techniques, and new technologies. Writing in National Affairs, the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler lauds the arrival of online degree courses as the saviour of higher education. He writes: “Improvements in customised and sophisticated student-education data . . . make it easy to imagine the interaction quality of online tutorials surpassing the effectiveness of the traditional system.” We are assured that nothing of enduring value would be lost in this brave new virtual world.

Here is a well-meaning approach to education reform that is as subversive as it is impoverished. Does anyone really imagine that, given the choice, teachers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Jesus and Maimonides would opt for the online tutorial?

The great minds of the Western tradition believed that real knowledge — including moral wisdom — is communicated through concrete, embodied relationships. It is the give-and-take of the classroom, the educator fully present with his students, which makes possible the highest purposes of the academy. For the aim is not only to nurture minds that can think for themselves, but which pursue with integrity the great truths about the human condition. It is here, in the bricks and mortar of the academy, that deep friendships are formed, the moral and spiritual relationships that help us on our life’s journey.

Can we afford to remain ignorant of this legacy in the West? Butler shrugs it off. “For most young people today,” he writes, “electronic friendships and networks are the norm.” There is no hint that anything whatsoever may be amiss with this trend.

Cicero sounded the alarm when he saw republican ideals fading from the public consciousness: “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” Our historical amnesia about the ends of the academy is widespread. We no longer treasure or guard those things once considered essential to education. No wonder we produce so many graduates with bad souls who cannot govern themselves.

Yet if we do not recover our cultural memory — if we worship at the altar of efficiency and economy — the explosive costs of a college degree will become a footnote in the crisis of the West.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a professor history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (Thomas Neslon, June 2012).

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