The literature and documentation of our educational decline have grown enormously in the last quarter-century, but we have now reached the moment when we may see education in perspective. Perspective in this case means the retrospective and prospective glance—but also a sideways look—to see what happens in other countries and continents where the initial situation was different from ours.

I have been helped in my assessment of the state of education by two factors. One is the awareness that the Sodom-and-Gomorrah morality and public spirit which permeate our existence are due largely to what has been going on in our schools and universities. We always knew it, but since 1968–70 the realization has kept hitting us with a particular force. The other element of my perspective on education is derived from various sojourns in other lands where, in developed as well as so-called underdeveloped countries, I could observe at first hand—while teaching and lecturing—the mentalities, programs, and educational policies.

Next to economic development and growth, education is the most universal demand today, and we may legitimately argue that, thetwo are connected. The industrial revolution and the rise of democracy made universal compulsory schooling necessary, and vice versa: the schooled man asked for well-remunerated work and for the right to share in the political process. After a country’s economic and political regime, education has become the third most important measuring rod of progress. Thus it was inevitable for American education to topple from the pedestal where Cardinal Newman had positioned it. In America, together with industry and democracy, education was regarded as part of the secular trinity. It became also inevitable that the masses of candidates for schooling would debase the high ideals of scholarship and culture, and insist on lowering standards until all could reach them. To the student masses, masses of teachers and professors were added, the majority of them with no ideals higher than those of their pupils and students: a job and a life easier than that of their average fellow citizens.

Since the damage done in schools—to minds, to the moral sense, to the cultural patrimony—is not so easy and rapid to detect as in industry, engineering, or medicine, several decades had to pass before we could be fully aware that education attained its two-centuries-old goal, that of educating everybody in the name of identical presuppositions. The failure to recognize what had happened was hidden by the tumultuous character of our democratic industrial civilization: so many channels exist for the education (actually informing) of the citizen that the school proper no longer seemed to be the most important and privileged one. All sorts of silly things could be required of the classroom, from driver education to courses in dating, and for a while the explanation was that culture and knowledge may be also, or better, communicated through television, the press, field trips, discussion groups, or simple living. Those who spoke thus obviously had a view of culture dictated by ideology. Following Dewey, they believed that the classroom is not a place for learning but a laboratory for reshaping society, together with other such “laboratories.” In modern times, the argument continued, there is no need for culture which, being a rehash of old events and values, instills in the recipient’s mind antidemocratic prejudices.

Roughly a dozen years ago it became evident that education for “living,” for the “whole child,” for “democracy,” for a “better world,” etc., had resulted not only in crass ignorance but also in the annihilation of the very values on which this ideal was based. After the teaching of history was replaced by “current events,” the students lost all curiosity even in the latter. After elective courses were allowed to obliterate the “core curriculum,” students and professors began arguing that the liberal arts core was not advantageous for the handicapped and that it did not leave enough room for electives. When students were authorized to “evaluate” their professors, they gave highest rank not to the best teachers but to the rabble-rousers and third-world revolutionaries. When the university opened its doors to all applicants with high-school diplomas (themselves worthless), the demand arose for a further lowering of standards to accommodate the illiterate and the idiot.

I do not think I astonish anybody by citing a few examples of the present level of students and professors. A friend reports from a respectable Catholic university that his students do not understand why B.C. dates decrease and A.D. dates increase. At a prestigious college I met PhD’s who had never attended a course in ancient history (perhaps TV serials were trusted to instill the requisite knowledge of “great civilizations”). At the college where I teach, modern languages are no longer required, although a colleague on the highest curriculum committee said she would vote for requiring them if “computer language” were also required.

These are some of the antecedents and symptoms. Let us enlarge now our scope and examine the relationship of education and scholarship. Here we witness an enormous paradox. In the past, the two hardly ever proceeded hand in hand, but their link was solid and unbreakable. For example, when late scholastic disciplines and methods were still being taught in universities, even in medical schools, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, science, philosophy, medicine, and law were detaching themselves from the official current and experimenting with new concepts and processes. Yet the Aristotelians at universities remained frères ennemis with the moderns—the Gassendis, the Harveys, the Mersennes, the Bacons, and the Cartesians. Their debates were not only meaningful; they were mutually enriching. Earlier, the Hellenistic-Roman vogue of Stoicism (practically an official teaching)could enter into dialogue with the emerging Christian scholarship; the neo-Platonic Plotinus had Christian masters and co-disciples, and he in turn influenced Christian mysticism for centuries. In my own school days, the highest scholarship was distilled into high school textbooks, although with some natural delay, since the tasks of schools is not to stand at the frontline of knowledge but to bring up the rearguard.

This relationship, evident at all periods, did not go without deep conflicts, as is illustrated in the first centuries or in the seventeenth, to choose examples at random. Budding Christianity realized that it could not acquire genuine respectability until it had established contact (even if partly antagonistic) with prevailing versions of Greek philosophy and scholarship. Justin and Tertullian created the links, St. Augustine later the synthesis. In the seventeenth century the overly sensationalized drama of Galileo merely obscures the elaboration of a synthesis in which the academic doctrine and the new science were to be participants for nearly two more centuries.

Today, scholarship, culture, and the schools are so fragmented that the exponents of each meet only by chance and have nothing to say to one another. Education has become a frivolous yet routine exercise, with curricula decided on the grounds of fashion, economics, and political expediency. Courses in female liberation, various racisms, black, hispanic, Judaic, and other “studies” resist successfully timid attempts, here and there, to maintain, a liberal arts core curriculum. Culture is mostly counterculture, a series of faddish clouds floating above the populace, serving the snobbism of the jet set, of international juries, and of big executives who need the culture tag as an apology for their capitalistic wealth.

Yet, all this does not affect real scholarship, its sturdiness and originality. In all periods there are men with inquisitive minds loyally committed to the scholar’s life. Such men have always been a very small minority, and it has never made any difference whether they were located among the elite or in some other rank of society. They collaborated even if their lives were spent in relative isolation. Only in modern times has their status changed vis-à-vis society: there arose a class of educated people, aristocratic and bourgeois mostly, knowledgeable enough to serve as recipients of high scholarship in the form of the reading public. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of scholars, philosophers, scientists, and artists were engaged in fruitful correspondence with “lay” individuals, from the middle and artisan classes, with whom ideas could be exchanged and taste discussed simply because they were cultured, educated, or self-educated, and insatiably curious. When Diderot launched the Encyclopedia, a costly as well as politically risky business, two thousand subscribers registered immediately and paid their subscription fees in advance.

This is how scholarly reputations grew and spread beyond small circles, and, incidentally, this is how the general optimism grew that by schooling everybody would become learned and acquire the moral quasi-asceticism and singleness of purpose needed for scholarly studies and interests. The idea was to embrace the entire nineteenth century, although by then there were a number of lucid minds, from Goethe to Burckhardt and Matthew Arnold, who realized that the more culture and scholarship spread, the more semi-educated people would crowd the corridors of academies, newspaper offices, lecture halls, and publishing houses. Nonetheless, the scholar and the artist had by then become accustomed to a large public, the so-called “educated layman” listening to their lectures, discussing their theses, and admiring as well as buying their “products.” When the phenomenon of the mass-university appeared first in the United States, then planetwide, the “educated public” grew to its broadest extension, becoming an “official public.” The millions in high schools and universities had to take liberal arts courses and had to read thousands of pages of Homer, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Shakespeare, and Marx. This was the brief honeymoon time between scholars and masses, the time when the scholars and their middlemen, the professors and the publishers, still had enough authority to impose their cultural and scholarly ideals on the masses of students and on the so-called public.

The drastic change came in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The student masses, by now a distinct sociological and political category, with their enormous weight as a pressure group, rebelled against their leaders in culture and scholarship, the professors and the curriculum planners, whom they perceived now as oppressors in the Marxist sense of the term. Education, in their view, must not be subordinated to something as vague and reactionary as culture and scholarship, which the students interpreted as the manipulative devices used by the bourgeoisie to control the masses of students through cultural selection. In the true spirit of the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century liberalism, they claimed that “education should be for the masses,” but this slogan no longer had anything to do with the watchword from d’Alembert to Trotsky. D’Alembert, it will be recalled, had demanded knowledge for all, and Trotsky believed that in the Communist society the average man would have the genius of Aristotle and Goethe.

Since 1968 the student masses have abandoned even the pretense of high culture, and a decade later, now, we are witnessing the consequences: the self-liquidation of the “educated lay-public,” mostly former students. One need only visit some prestigious New York bookstores to become aware of the change. Where there used to be long shelves of philosophy, religion, history, etc., in paperback editions, there is now a small corner devoted to books on the occult, on gardening, on party fun, popular science, and sexual perversions. The unsuspecting browser and buyer are no longer exposed to intellectual challenge; they are fed the kind of mush that, in a parallel process, the college students are made to ingurgitate in their classes under the pretext of education. The paperback editions of scholarly works are forced into the background because even fewer professors require, or dare require, them as compulsory reading. The publishers follow the trend and in part anticipate it. Years ago, on the threshold of decline, they at least insisted that the manuscript submitted to them should be written in a clear style, for the “educated public.” Later, this label tended to disappear, and the request by publishers was for books that colleges would order in large quantities. Nowadays, college courses require no “large quantities,” and the publishers frankly ask for books for mass circulation and “bestsellers.”

All this indicates the coming divorce between education and scholarship. More than twenty years ago I observed in The Future of Education that universities were becoming subcultural and mass-cultural supermarkets where the citizens enroll to receive a document, a kind of identification card, authorizing them to circulate in a bureaucratic society, or, if older, to earn promotion and wage increases. I wrote further that serious scholars will find “refuge” in hidden corners of the academy, sought out by members of a future “clandestine elite,” where they may work undisturbed. The prediction has become reality, although the scholar, spoiled and often corrupted by five centuries of social and political prominence and influence, lionized by the powerful and the profane, has not yet understood how his status is changing. He will take perhaps decades to realize that the divorce is consummated between him and the public; then he will re-learn to write again for his peers, a kind of secret society, while the public will happily settle for the mediocrities to whichit was traditionally attracted. At fairs in the Middle Ages and much later, too, the literature bought by the curious consisted of almanacs, dream interpretations, wondrous travels, famous love stories, great heroes, and how to . . . books about anything from agriculture to love potions. Serious books circulated only among a small elite, the clerks, the erudite, the monks, the humanists. How would today’s and tomorrow’s Mr. Public know about scholarly books when he visits bookstores or reads popular magazines that do not inform him? Besides, culturally emasculated during his college years, he will not even be interested.

The scholar, on the other hand, never had it so good. To his beneficial isolation from the public and political involvement are added all the modern conveniences: superb libraries, jet flights to international congresses, technical improvements in methods of research and production of material. True, it will be hard for him to give up contact with the public, the residual effect of which will be that his politics and his ideology will be of no interest for the idea-market. But not hearing Einstein on world peace, Bertrand Russell on communism, or Sartre on everything from homosexuality to Bach’s music may be quite a good thing for all concerned.

It has been argued in The University Bookman and more recently on French television that the schools have ceased teaching history at a time when the general public’s interest in the subject is on the rise. Two observations. There is no such rise of interest but rather a retro-induced nostalgia for old objects. I note every day my students’ absolute lack of sense of time, from language structure to historical dates, not because they are young but because this civilization, hedonistic to the core, is entirely now oriented. One can ascertain it even in the case of institutions like the Catholic Church, which has abandoned Latin, large segments of the liturgy, and traditional ways of dressing and behaving. Noted theologians like Karl Rahner (Catholic) or Rudolf Bultmann (Protestant), and unclassifiable but influential ideologues like Teilhard write of the future as the privileged dimension, and engage in the philosophical groundwork of removing the past from man’s scope. The vogue of such charlatanisms as futurology and prospectivism also suggests the direction of semi-educated interest.

The second observation is that whatever interest in history might be sporadically manifested by some sectors of the public is overwhelmed, neutralized, and crushed by the educational establishment, not only in America but also in Europe, which apes us in a grotesquely servile fashion. On the previously mentioned television debate in Paris, politicians, writers, outstanding historians (P. Goubert, La Roy Ladurie, F. Braudel) argued that a) history is the collective memory of a nation; b) patriotism cannot be preserved without teaching history; and c) the growing person needs a knowledge of history at all levels of his development—yet the ministers of education and their semi-clandestine staff of decisionmakers continue marginalizing history (and geography). Alas, the debaters failed to understandthat an agent far more powerful than any they imagined has been at work against history: the ideology of Western society, the naive but now dominant belief that a new man is born whose inner life will respond to psychological manipulation and whose outer life will be sociologically manipulated work and leisure. Call it the hedonistic man, the robot man, or any other strange monster—it is the ideal figure of our civilization’s coryphees who shape it every day with their myriad decisions and committee meetings, whether in academic, cultural, or business life.

Otherwise, how could one account for the fact that history (I choose this example, but I could have chosen philosophy, religion, literature, etc.) is not marginalized in France alone, with her centralized instructional system, but also in America with its plethora of private, independent, even religiously orientated high schools and colleges? This is what I read in a brochure published by the New York Times as an advertising supplement of “Why Go to College?” There are the following chapter heads in the order listed: a) you’ll be prepared for a career; b) you’ll have a better chance of getting a job; c) you’ll have a better chance of getting a good job; d) you’ll have a better chance of earning more; e) you’ll be better prepared for a fulfilling life. This last rubric is subdivided into ability to learn on your own, self-discovery, self-confidence, family success, richer leisure, better health, ability to cope, alert citizenship, participation in culture. I leave unmentioned the details of the sugary, publicity-type language of the whole repulsive money-catching device, the therapy-orientation, the cheap style.

Thus at all levels the separation of education from scholarship and culture (other than mass culture and counterculture) has been accomplished by the first superficial hedonistic civilization in history and by the educational bureaucracy with its ideological doctrine that past and permanence must be banned from the new man’s purview. The new man is a work-and-leisure directed robot whose existence is divided between the crowded subway, the television set, and the sandy beach two weeks in August.

So far as the scholar and the creator of culture are concerned, we must declare their new fate in many respects superior to the recent one. Nolens-volens, they are being detached from servitude to the public at large, and from the engagement in matters not only diversionary but temptingly dishonest. There will be fewer occasions for la trahison des clercs. At the same time, and this should be regretted, the scholar, the artist, the littérateur will be deprived of their hinterland, the intelligent reader, whose contribution was to channel their ideas and forms, responding to them in a mutually advantageous way.

It is outside the scope of this essay to try to comprehend the full consequences and long-range effects of these phenomena, but they doubtless represent a major turning point in the educational panorama of the Western world. For the first time, masses of people will be schooled with hardly any contact between them and the true achievements of the life of the mind. This is worse than the mass illiteracy of the past because that was compatible with the lesson of things and with natural wisdom, la sagesse des nations. Today’s and tomorrow’s school masses will float in an urbanized utopia, a culturally homogenized nihil. Nobody can tell me the opposite; my students are advanced specimens of the new race of new men.

Can relief from the educational process be expected anywhere? Since the task of answering this question would be too vast if we included lower grades, we shall concentrate on universities. In Europe, while curricula and methods may vary from one country to another, phenomena similar to those in the United States become increasingly apparent, even if they are not yet the rule. Europeanman still finds himself between two civilizations: the traditional and the robotized. He is still not overwhelmed by the media, perhaps because he sees through technology’s deadly tricks and has a healthy skepticism about official, or simply public, proclamations and programs.

On the other hand, the unified educational bureaucracy, now increasingly deprived of the erstwhile deeply cultured educational official (for example the French inspecteurs with philosophical dimensions), is more single-minded in its ambition to enforce ideological objectives. It also readily yields to overseas influence: permissive methods, emphasis on applied science, elimination of such “old” disciplines as Latin, history, and philosophy. And far more intensively than in this country, Marxist indoctrination, or at least Marxist coloration of political, sociological, and literary matters is widespread.

Yet the separation of education from scholarship and culture has not been consummated in the European curriculum, primarily because of the prestige surrounding the “great man”—the architect and writer, the philosopher and sage (Wissenschaftler, savant). In countries where the government or the head of state decides on major-scale urban planning or important aspects of cultural policy, the prestige of intellectual achievement remains high, even at school level. However, the traditionally strong relationship, one may even call it a fusion, between school and scholarship is slowly eroding because the high standard of living persuades the powers that be that its preservation depends on the shaping of the consumer, hence on a new culture, on a new curriculum. In Europe, the process that began in the general postwar moral weakening decisively accelerated after 1968 with the creation of universities where ideology and anarchy have reigned ever since.

The situation is somewhat clearer, although not more reassuring, in the universities of the Third World. Clearer because large numbers of grade and high schools are maintained and directed by Christian churches and missionaries, who, in addition to religious education, instill community values in the children, as well as subjects attentive to Western and local realities. Their graduates are generally more respectful of the education they have received than are their Western counterparts. Third World children, in contrast, are aware that education is a great good thing that happens to them, and they put teachers in the same category as ancestral scribes and wisemen, as a source of authority. The situation is clearer also because Third World universities, in theory at least, teach and train such vitally needed personnel as engineers, doctors, agronomists, and public servants. Insofar as they do, they become, quite naturally, technical and vocational schools, nothing more. Insofar as they do not, they are imitation-Western: the courses are heavily politicized, with only a minimum of scholarly content. This condition obtains because the teaching staff consists of locals with diplomas from Western or Communist universities—antagonistic to the West—and of expatriates from the West, mostly young enthusiasts who regard themselves as missionaries of an ideological cause. The student graduated from such universities acquires only a smattering of serious subjects or of technical preparation. What he mostly acquires is a few crude notions about recent Western cultural fads like existentialism, Third World studies, or “socialism with a human face.”

The new elite thus prepared in Asia, Africa, and most of South America, is then hardly competent to carry out tasks in technical and administrative fields and inadequate as well to deal in depth with the tradition of his homeland. Students therefore are neither rooted in the cultural soil of their nation nor capable of helping bring about the necessary modernization. The superficial notions they derive from questionable Western books and other sources only enervate them, supplying them with unrealistic dreams. They have a choice: join the traditional upper class, which is usually corrupt and interested only in preserving its privileges, or become rebels; usually of some Marxist variety. The third choice is to emigrate; hence there are legions of doctors and other professionals from India and South America at Western institutions.

The university staff is no help in this problem. In the course of my last trip through Africa, Asia, and some islands in the Pacific, I was prompted to coin the term “BA in Unemployment” as I was confronted with hordes of students educated for nothing in particular. In a very poor Egypt, the idle young study the Koran at the Al Azhar mosque and law at the national university, both dead-end streets of achievement. In India, the graduates swell the millions of half-employed and the other millions of petty functionaries who shift papers at ministries and banks for eight hours a day. The more ambitious emigrate and never return. In Papua-New Guinea, the teaching staff at the national university at Port Moresby is entirely Australian, ultra-leftist, inciting the native students, who are nominally learning civil administration or medicine, to turn against their government, a “puppet of multi-national companies” and of the “Neocolonialists in Canberra.”

Such is, in rough outlines, the state of what used to be called “higher education.” Newman’s idea of a university is light years away in the past. For all intents and purposes the university has ceased to exist; its traditional functions, performed from the twelfth century until about the first third of the twentieth, are no longer recognizable. The conclusion I now reach is not different from what it was in 1961 when The Future of Education appeared. Let me briefly recapitulate it.

Institutions come into existence, reach their acme, and decay. After some eight centuries, the Western university, later exported planetwide, has closed its doors. What survives is, amidst the rags of glory, a mélange of utilitarian recipes and ideological prescriptions; their ingurgitation is a requisite for anyone wishing to qualify for jobs in the huge work-and-leisure market that our societies have become. Their cultural and scholarly value is nil.

But since scholarship and culture are never extinguished, they are now migrating to other as yet undefined corners of our tolerant and prosperous society. Their adepts, not distinguishable from other graduates by an external sign, are the boat-people of scholarship and culture, refugees held together by the invisible bonds of loyalty to high things. It is among them, and in what I called earlier “lay monasteries,” that the great achievements of truth and beauty may again mature.  

Thomas Molnar (1921–2010) was a Catholic philosopher, historian, and political theorist. Born in Hungary, he taught for many years at Brooklyn College and wrote more than forty books.

In this 1981 installment from our archives, the late historian Thomas Molnar assesses the state of the modern university. Don’t be misled by the innocuous title: Molnar looks at institutions around the world to illustrate his argument that modern education is now wholly separated from true scholarship.