Can Higher Education Really Save Our Humanity?

We think higher education is important, but are convinced it’s broken. And it is, unless it can recover its deep questioning about what it means to be human.

Justin Lewis/Getty

America has a love-hate relationship with higher education. Like a partner in a failing relationship, we expect colleges and universities to solve all our problems, yet berate them endlessly for failing to solve their own.

Nothing, we are told, is more important than a good education. Nothing is a stronger force for opportunity, for equality, for mobility. Without a great national education system, we won’t create the jobs of tomorrow, or the employees of today. We’ll lose the future.

At the same time, we’re told that education is broken. It favors elites. It favors the rich. It favors token minorities. It manufactures credentials and sells the promise of self-esteem in exchange for a lifetime of debt.

The train of abuses, we are told, is long: Higher education suffers from a STEM gap between men and women. Higher education suffers from a breakdown of the humanities. Higher education holds out the carrot of tenure to more desperate graduate students than can ever become professors, or ever should.

Bashing the education system is a great way to make a buck in America. So, of course, is touting a policy plan designed to save our college and universities from themselves, or from ourselves, or from our die-hard ideological adversaries, or whatever. So long as there’s a crisis to describe, an enemy to blame, and some busy work to tie to a utopian vision of educational virtue, you have America’s attention—at least until the next thinkfluencer comes along.

It is a wearying carousel of flashing lights and scary expressions pumping up and down in time to the music. Droves of “young” people (too young for tenure) have learned sad and punishing lessons about the limits—and costs—of even the most enviable academic credentials and ivied social milieus.

But instead of drilling down to the roots of our dismay, the busiest voices haggling over the future of higher education stake out positions utterly dependent on one narrow wedge of human experience or another. So “what’s wrong with education” turns out to be some malevolent animus against tech, or against class consciousness, or it’s a refusal to accept the laws of economics, or it’s a fanatical devotion to political goals. Anyone who dares object to one of these indictments is obliged to do so in terms of their own special pleading. The war of all hobbyhorses against all rages on.

Consequently we’ve all but given up on the idea of a general critique of academia—one that’s independent of any biased perspective or vested interest. We rage at the way the academy seems to be failing humanity, refusing all the while to countenance the possibility of an appraisal of higher education framed in fully and merely human terms.

Our paralysis amidst this paradox is not helped by the way it has taken hold inside the ivory tower itself. Nowhere are the stakes on sharper display than in today’s massive self-segregation of secular theorists and religious ones, with Richard Dawkins’ brand of atheists at one end of the room and devout natural law scholars like Robert George at the other. Once, the humanist idea used to animate the very core of the university. Now, the dwindling supply of professors who take humanism seriously has largely hived off into two bitterly self-segregated groups of anti-religious theorists and devoutly religious ones.

Their respective dogmas, though fiercely opposed, contribute to the collapse of the university ideal in the same way: if you are not already on board with one camp’s or the other’s comprehensive doctrines about matters of ultimate meaning, increasingly, you need not apply.

When I recently I drifted away from my own prestigious university, where I conducted my own graduate work in the humanities, it was this disheartening reality that became paramount. It’s not just prohibitively difficult to carve out an academic career as an independent theoretical humanist. It’s just about impossible to use the academy as a platform from which to speak to scholarly or general audiences about how to reorient ourselves toward the possibility of rediscovering what being human is all about.

You may say that only an idiot would think that an institution of higher learning is the appropriate place to conduct that kind of activity. In a sense, you would be right. Socrates didn’t have tenure. But we trace the university back to Plato’s academy for a reason. The philosophical investigation of our anthropological reality is the cornerstone of higher education. It is not “for everyone,” nor need it be, nor is that the most important thing about it. It is just the one thing without which a university loses the character that we still, inarticulately, believe it must have, and becomes something else—something with such lower horizons that it simply cannot be made to bear the burden of social salvation that we press so hard upon it today.

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To our great discredit, we have lost faith in the value of a body and mind open to the discovery of transformative experience in life. We have grown disenchanted with the possibility of our shared participation in that openness. How can I, a mere [fill in the blank], share in such discoveries? A few offer up intense sexual kink or dramatic religious experiences as a roadmap. In today’s ill-at-ease world, however, these exotic practices often do more to drive away wonderers than draw them near.

Today, so many people want to come to know life as a realm where they can practice everyday readiness for unpredictably fruitful transformations—and not with special technological, ecclesiological, or erotic equipment, either. Simply through language, in close but open conversation, this education may be done.

That was the ancient wisdom which made mass higher education a dreamable dream. Scandalously, it is the same ancient wisdom for which today’s institutions of higher education characteristically hold so little regard. An educational system which rejects philosophy as the teaching of natural grace can only “open students’ horizons” in a bogus, ironic way—increasing their wealth, status, or competence, to be sure, but leaving them, and us, always grasping vainly for more.