Today conservatives and Christians who treasure the achievements of the West find themselves wading through some fairly high, rather dark water that seems to have come from somewhere else, outside the culture we embrace: threats to free speech; dwindling marriages; the flip of male and female (normal just yesterday) into ‘cisgender’; enthusiasm for changes once advocated by nihilists; and so on. Where did this water come from? Some answer postmodernism – which is to say, it has come from ideas.
Well, if it is true that, to quote Jordan Peterson, our universities harbour “extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hell-bent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization” (check out his recent video “Dangerous People Are Teaching Your Kids”), how have those ideas won such currency? It is time to ask the question of our role in achieving these flood conditions – not to assign blame but to get to work repairing the dyke. If these ideas are everywhere today, isn’t it because someone, somehow, got rid of a much-needed impediment?
There was a time when Canadians saw higher learning (studies beyond high school) as a kind of completion of education, bringing into sharp focus all that the young adult Christian had been taught since childhood – fortifying it with its proper defenses, deepening it with a more mature and comprehensive grasp of Scripture. The purpose was to promote “good order in society” by equipping young people (soon to set up households of their own) with the rationale of the good order we had all around us. (Tradition is not just the habits: pass on the habits without the reasons and what do you do when the habits are questioned?) Wrote an American college president in 1871,
If there is any sanctuary where well-grounded convictions should find refuge, and where these should be honoured, it is in a place devoted to higher education.
The institution that claimed this objective was the college (believe it or not but in this period there were no universities at all). It should be clear how “closely bound,” says one historian, this idea of an intellectual inheritance was with the outlook of religion. If it is sensible to think that “the central ideas of the West should be transmitted across the generations” (Prof. Peterson) then let it be understood that the Church had this idea.
From the beginning of colonization until a critical point late in the 19th century, formalized education in Canada was provided by the Church. It is not that political bodies controlled education, asking churches to deliver what the State proposed; it is that colonies and towns needed and wanted the education that churches were eager to provide, education being part of their established mission. The result was colleges run by different denominations scattered all across the country.
As Russell Kirk put it, “The object of a college education is not success ... but the acquiring of wisdom and virtue,” which “are not the same as facts, or utility, or training, or even knowledge.” The bar thus raised is certainly set high, but we used to consider it set there by God (“Get wisdom...” – Prov. 4:7), and so neither optional nor easy to attain nor beyond us. As Kirk reminds us, “No college can confer wisdom and virtue automatically, ... what higher education can accomplish is limited,” but if schooling focuses on the relevant issues – the issues that were the focus of a traditional liberal arts college – it will do much “to enable a man to order his own soul,” and, “by doing that, it will have contributed mightily toward order in the commonwealth.”
In days gone by, in a culture wise enough to regularly reinforce its people in this way, one graduating class at a time in every college town, contrary ideas always met with sound opposition – not shrill and fearful dismissal (a signal of weakness) but quiet, confident dismantling. Is it far-fetched to imagine that teenagers with only a few years’ college education might achieve this: lay hold of “the central ideas of the West” and take advantage of their leverage, keeping damaging ideas in check?
Consider the Fathers of Confederation, not one of whom was educated at a university as we understand it; those with the highest level of education went straight from church-run liberal arts colleges (strengthening youth in all that chiefly matters) into the study of law (an expertise). It appears that quite a bit of vision rubbed off on them in the liberal arts programmes they were put through, with their imposed study of classics, Scripture, poetry, logic and rhetoric, moral philosophy, seminal thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, Locke and Burke. They soon went on to fashion, said Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “the first Constitution ever given to a mixed people, in which the conscientious rights of the minority are made a subject of formal guarantee.” No mean feat.
In this country, as in the West generally, higher education was initially the intellectual preparation of citizens on the verge of adulthood to think with the understanding of things that their culture held up as good; thus the in-pouring water never rose very high. It is frankly amazing that we should ever have abandoned this view of education, but the Canadian Encyclopedia still gets it right. In its article on “Education in Canada” we read that, “In human societies the maintenance and enhancement of the knowledge, skills, and values of the group depend on instruction and learning.” Self-evident, really, but to spell this out: education is nothing less than the delivery of the knowledge needed by a group or community to preserve the very goods that that group has come into being to sustain. The article’s authors talk about a group, not society as a whole, for good reason. Groups form around something (a history, an understanding), and education has never come from ‘society as a whole’ (a collective abstraction).
The group in question might be engineers, it might be Anglicans, it might even be, these authors suggest, families in a particular community:
At the level of the family, our most basic social group, unless the members of the unit find ways to identify, preserve, communicate, and share the beliefs, traditions, values, and essential characteristics of the group, in time, the cohesiveness of the family will be lost, individual members will not identify with the unit or the name, and new relationships with different norms and interests will replace it.
That is, if it is good to be an engineer then we need education, and if it is good to be a community with a defensible way of life that can be sustained only through teaching – Anglicans, say, with their take on Scripture and history, both religious and political; or simply Christians – then, just as with engineering, we need education, to teach the ways that generate the goods of these cultures. “The process whereby people gain knowledge, acquire understanding, master skills, or internalize values is referred to as education.”
In the legacy of a great culture there is just too much of serious value for Mom, Dad, and the Sunday sermon to impart; thus what Canadian colleges offered is just what the Canadian Encyclopedia describes: the worldview of groups that had one – a coherent outlook built of defensible philosophy and the received truths of a people (never yet disproved by anyone).
Such was the rationale for higher education in Canada until that event in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that turned all of this around and changed not simply the landscape of academia but, far more critically, the play of ideas, the health and strength of Canadian society. These colleges, created as instruments that keep the country ‘able-bodied’ in its thinking, were to all intents and purposes given up.
Writes Laurence Veysey, a premier historian of this phenomenon, “At the close of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries ... the university ... emerged to eclipse the older, religiously oriented college.” Those who have studied this event point out how “wrong” is the common view that the older colleges were simply proto-universities that underwent an expected “transition.” What in fact took place was “a pronounced transformation” – one that another historian, speaking of the American experience, calls part of a “general collapse” of the inherited “institutions of New England conservatism.” Likewise in Canada. Here the understanding of higher education held by the churches was abandoned as the colleges (virtually every last one) were changed into universities, which are a different institution altogether.
It is not hard to mark the difference. Colleges taught a way of thought; universities taught subjects, an activity counted much more basic than the “indoctrination” that people began to associate with the colleges – academic study being, by contrast, the neutral acquisition of ‘expert’ knowledge with which to build an outlook of your own. If, in Russell Kirk’s words, “the aim of the oldfangled college was ethical,” spiritual, and civic, the aim of the university was knowledge, defined as the output of disciplines. If religion contributes nothing to the results of research, what is the meaning of a Catholic or a Christian university?
What a university aims to give society is an historian or an engineer or a philosopher, all of whom we truly need. Experts also benefit society and I have gratefully relied on some in the text you are reading. But what a college aimed to produce is a good person: that is to say, someone equipped, as their human potential fits them to be equipped, with a coherent and defensible understanding of all the major concerns of life: family, sex, work, play, government, religion, health, the value of cultural developments such as literature, science, technology, and entertainment. The point to note is that there is no rivalry between the college and the university as just defined.
It is not at all that the churches should have retained control of education, dominated the universities or stopped their rise. Rather, they should not have offered to hand their institutions over and vacate the field of higher education, as if with the arrival of experts formation had suddenly met its match.
The churches did not exactly abandon higher learning. They signed off on the ‘development’ of the college by endorsing the universalization of higher learning: the opening up of their own schools to all by not ‘restricting’ higher learning to the service and formation of Anglicans, Catholics, or even Christians. But in doing so – moved, perhaps, by the sense that this magnanimous gesture was Christian in spirit – the churches just let go of the schools that they themselves, and the country itself, always need.
Some sort of change was called for. If, in 1803 in the region of the future capital, there were four times more people declaring no religion than there were Anglicans, then a minority view of life was on the rise. Rival views of God, man, and nature were heard from every quarter.
“Unbelief,” wrote a college president in 1882, “was never more imposing to men of culture than it is at the present time.”
The church-run colleges would hardly suit everyone. Perhaps another formative institution was needed in a country attentive to the “rights of the minority.” But why should the new institution drive out the old?
Yet it did. “Required courses in moral philosophy, like the ... theology course before them, vanished from university curricula” and the liberal arts curriculum, shaped to deliver the elements of a coherent Christian outlook, simply disappeared altogether.
After this sketch of a major event in Canadian history, what conclusion are we to draw? It is certainly not, ‘newfangled universities bad / oldfangled colleges good’ – the original false dichotomy. Looking back, the most striking fact about this radical restructuring of Canada’s mental culture – abort! restart! – is the attitude of the churches, the denominations that had created the colleges, with mottoes like In Wisdom and doctrine, stability (Queen’s College at Kingston, 1841) and Truth leads to God (Mount Saint Vincent Academy, Halifax, 1873). Why were schools with such ambitions suddenly not needed? Are the disciplines going to do that work? How is it that now Christian youth could simply step from high school into a discipline, or that the only concern of the high-school graduate was his own job or career? What about the dyke, the strength, the rationale?
And what about today? Whose job is it to provide this structure protecting societal goods from corrosion, erosion, and real foulness? In our past, the churches and the colleges said that this was a primary task of education. Canadians used to see this as the job of a people (Anglicans, Catholics, Christians,...).
How extraordinary of the churches to change their tune, when it is the Christian view of life that darkness reigns in this world; people “walk about in darkness” (Ps 82:5) and its effect is alarming (“all the foundations of the earth are shaken”). In other words, the one thing the Christian knows about deep and destructive water is that it is promised (“And the rain fell, and the floods came”– Matt 7:27). How, on the doorstep of the 20th century, did we suppose that we would stem the tides whose rise we had watched for a century? Part way into the 21st century, do these seem good times in which to hang back from the work of transmitting light, keeping the torch lit?
For it so happens that the landscape of higher education did not exactly shift, as promised, from formation to pure knowledge (output fit for all). If we did not know it in 1890, by now we should have learned from Alasdair MacIntyre that all talk of universal higher learning is merely a front for somebody’s worldview. A full 40 years ago, Russell Kirk urged upon us the “restoration” of the college, beginning a movement that is slowly coming to life with the emergence of a very few Christian colleges unapologetic about formation and transmission.
Said Kirk, “I think that the peculiar conditions of our time and our society demand, more than before, a reinvigoration of truly liberal learning.”
If, as Professor Peterson suggests, the ideas that today’s students soak up at university (on gender, fascism, sexuality, truth, privilege, oppression) pose a threat to our social health, isn’t the thing we so deeply need just the thing we once had: the higher higher learning of the oldfangled Christian college?
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