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Teaching the West: 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 Valery, 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 Valery 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 today's 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.

In the mid-1800s there were numerous colleges in the United States, two of them dating to the 17th century, a few others from the 18th. At most they were colleges with one or more professional schools attached. Harvard and Yale and others gave honorary degrees, such as the M.A., but not as a result of studies completed in course until the late 19th century. The first Harvard M.A. for work accomplished in course was awarded in 1876.

John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University captured the thrust of English higher education of that day. Its task was not to attempt technical education but to train the student in the liberal arts, in the words of Newman, "to fill any post with credit, to master any subject with facility." But was that enough, given the progress that was being made in the natural sciences and its implications for the culture?

The 19th century was the century of von Helmholtz, Goethe, Wundt, Faraday, Joule, Darwin, and Pasteur, to name only the most distinguished scientists. In spite of a steady expansion of scientific knowledge, the curriculum of most established colleges on both sides of the Atlantic went virtually untouched until the end of the century. The most significant work in the natural sciences was still being done outside the walls of higher education. The basic curriculum of most colleges remained non-technical and non-professional.

In 1805, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in collaboration with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt, created a new model for higher education, the research university, with the founding of the University of Berlin, known also in Germany as the Humboldt University. It was Fichte's vision in drawing up a plan for the new university to combine investigation and research in all fields of knowledge with teaching. The University of Berlin soon became the prototype of universities in Breslau (1811), Bonn (1818), Munich (1826), and in the United States of Johns Hopkins (1876), Clark University (1889), and The Catholic University of

America (1889).

Johns Hopkins was founded as a graduate university, in the words of Daniel Coit Gilman, its first president, to foster, "the encouragement of research by individual scholars who by their excellence will advance the sciences as they pursue their work in the laboratories and libraries of the university." The Berlin model, once introduced, took hold on American soil and, with the creation of the land-grant colleges, became the norm of higher education throughout the country.

Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia were adding graduate courses at about the same time as the founding of Johns Hopkins and soon began to resemble the universities we know today. The University of Chicago was established in 1891 as both an English-style undergraduate college and a Berlin-style graduate institution. The Jesuit institutions created in the same period, however, for the most part retained the model of an English college surrounded by professional schools.

It did not take the research university long before it recognized that it had to add an undergraduate curriculum, not so much in the beginning for the crass purpose of funding graduate research but to enable those students who wanted to do advanced work to make up for deficiencies in their previous training.

What eventually happened was foreseen by Fichte's critics. Graduate education and preparation for graduate studies became highly specialized with the liberal arts curriculum marginalized, leaving in its wake well-trained technicians but otherwise illiterate graduates. Clearly the Berlin model had its downside. When technically trained professionals, largely ignorant of history and classical learning, rise to positions of authority within the university itself, classical or liberal arts programs often have to fight for their place in the curriculum.

There is another factor that cannot be ignored. The study of Greek and Latin and the study of classical philosophy and theology are bound to a considerable extent with the religious dimension of higher education. That dimension prevailed and governed the founding mission of the early New England colleges. But the intellectual climate of Europe was to change.

Nineteenth-century Europe was an intellectually tumultuous place. Dominated in the intellectual order by the Enlightenment, Europe underwent an attempt on the part of its intelligentsia to replace the inherited, largely classical and Christian learning with a purely secular ethos. The Napoleonic wars and their aftermath added materially to a destabilized Europe, eradicating many institutional structures--educational, economic, and social as well as religious. Startling advances in the physical sciences reinforced the Enlightenment's confidence in natural reason.

On both sides of the Atlantic the predominant response enlisted to defend the old order drew upon some form of philosophical idealism. Challenged by a purely naturalistic interpretation of faith, many believers found the rational support they needed in a post-Kantian idealism. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, founded at St. Louis in 1867, was introduced for the dual purpose of making available the best of German philosophy and of providing the Americans with a philosophical forum.

Its editor, William Torrey Harris, who became the first U.S. commissioner of education, explained the journal's purpose in its first issue. He gave three reasons for the pursuit of speculative philosophy. In his judgment, it provides first a philosophy of religion much needed at a time when traditional religious teaching and ecclesiastical authority are losing their influence. Secondly, it establishes a social philosophy compatible with a communal outlook, as contrasted with a socially devastating individualism. Thirdly, while taking cognizance of the remarkable advances in the natural sciences, it supplies an alternative to empiricism as a philosophy of knowledge.

Speculative philosophy for William Torrey Harris is the tradition beginning with Plato, a tradition that finds its full expression in the system of Hegel. Harris was also a charter member of a society founded in 1874 that became the St. Louis Philosophical Society, known also as the St. Louis Hege lians or sometimes as the Kant Club. The influence of St. Louis eventually extended to New England, where Harris helped to start the Concord Summer School of Philosophy in 1880.

The point of this historical excursion is to illustrate the intimate connection between philosophy and religion and its implications for classical learning. Another example is found in the work of Josiah Royce (1855-1916), whom historians number as one on a short list of classic American philosophers. Of American idealists he undoubtedly became the most prominent. After earning a baccalaureate degree at the University of California, Royce spent two years in Germany, where he read Schelling and Schopenhauer. He studied under Rudolf Hermann Lotze at Gottingen but returned to take his doctorate in 1876 at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University. His Gifford Lectures, 1900-1901, published as The World and the Individual, attempted to provide a rational base for religion and morality.

In those lectures Royce defended the possibility of truth against the skeptic and the reality of the divine against the agnostic. He had little respect for blind faith. The problem created by Kant's destruction of metaphysics he regarded as fundamental. In 1881, Royce wrote, "We all live, philosophically speaking in a Kantian atmosphere." Eschewing the outright voluntarism of Schopenhauer and the fideistic Christianity defended by S0ren Kierkegaard, Royce sought a metaphysics that would permit him to embrace his Christian heritage rationally.

Whereas his Harvard colleague William James was convinced that every rational approach to God must fail, Royce was certain, like Harris, that speculative reason gives access to God. The code words of the day--"evolution," "progress," "illusion," and "higher criticism"--he thought evoked a mental outlook that reduces Christianity to metaphor and Christian organizations to welfare dispensaries.

The movement inspired by Royce was not without success. By the last quarter of the 19th century, in the newly emerging universities nearly every chair of philosophy was held by an idealist, but the intellectual climate was soon to change. Hegel was not able to hold the day in the face of notable achievements in the sciences that demanded recognition of the empirical source of new ways of thinking about nature. Laws of nature are discovered; inquiry is not simply the uncovering of the implicit or the organization of data in the light of the given. To Royce's supposed definitive critique of materialism, opposition was not long in coming.

Critiques were mounted in volumes published as corporate philosophical enquiry under titles such as The New Realism (1912) and Critical Realism (1920) and were soon to control the day. By 1916, the idealism of the St. Louis Hegelians had given way and would be replaced by the pragmatic naturalism of John Dewey and his school, an outlook that found expression in another corporate volume, Naturalism and the Human Spirit (1944). This signified the direction the new realism was to take. Under the influence of Dewey, it became the philosophy undergirding public education in the United States.

Liberal education and classical studies did not disappear. Although Greek and Latin departments had to fight for their existence in many universities, hundreds of liberal arts colleges maintained some semblance of the old curriculum, and Latin teachers were still to be found in secondary schools across the land. In fact, the recognition of the importance of classical studies was reinforced in the popular mind by scholars such as Mark Van Doren of Columbia University; Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and Richard McKeon of the University of Chicago; and by Jacques Maritain in his Terry Lectures at Yale.

Until the 1960s, America's more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities retained a traditional scholastic curriculum. The mode of teaching was usually historical or systematic or a combination of the two. The aim of teaching was an integrated whole, both speculative and practical. Textual exegesis played a secondary role, but few students completed their education without some knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics.

The value of a liberal education cannot be overestimated. Those who have been schooled in the classics and trained in logic and rhetoric usually rise to positions of leadership in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue. They have an advantage over the technically trained insofar as their literary skills enable them to clearly articulate institutional objectives and policy, hallmarks of leadership. Those who seek advanced study in Greek and Latin are often the very brightest as determined by the scores they collectively achieve in the verbal and analytic portions of the Graduate Record Examination.

We began with Husserl, Santayana, and Valery calling for the revival of classical learning. That revival did not occur. If anything, Europe today is further removed from the classical sources of its culture. The French philosopher Pierre Manent, in his 2007 work Democracy Without Nations, writes: "We [Europeans] do not possess any particular existence. We do not want to possess any shape, manner or form, a distinctive existence of our own, one that would necessarily be particular."

To parry the threat of self-destruction, Manent is convinced that "Nothing is more important than to get a grip on our centuries-old development and that means first of all that we must become fully aware of the original Christian character of our nations."

Tradition once broken is not easily recovered. It may be that Europe is now reaping the 20th century's neglect of classical and religious studies. Manent believes that when education is organized on wholly utilitarian lines, society is deprived of a broadly educated class whose knowledge of philosophy, history, and literature could normally be relied upon to provide the wisdom necessary to understand the present. And so it has proved.


Jude P. Dougherty is dean emeritus of the school of philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
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Title Annotation:Ideas
Author:Dougherty, Jude P.
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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