American Heresies and Higher Education
by Peter Augustine Lawler.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2016.
Paperback, 224 pages, $20.

Any appreciator of permanent and higher things who has gone to the university has very likely encountered the ugliness of political correctness, progressivism, and the sort of epicurean materialism that typifies modern higher education. The very term “higher education” is itself a cruel joke, a twisting of the knife, to anyone in possession of even the most vague sense that there is, in truth, something higher than the crudeness of everyday life. Indeed, the term itself implies a sort of transcendent progression from one educational state to the next. Perhaps the more appropriate term would be not higher, but lateral education, as the halls of academia do much more to expand knowledge outward (or more appropriately, inward, in our specialized market), than upward.

Unlike so many books written by conservatives on the topic of higher education, in Peter Lawler’s American Heresies and Higher Education the aim is not to “reject the blessings of technological progress,” but rather to, “create a ‘safe space’ for liberal education in our increasingly one-dimensional educational system by deploying all means necessary to defend our genuine moral and intellectual diversity.” It is with a realistic but mournful reluctance that Lawler acknowledges the function of modern higher education, which is to reduce “all real education to acquiring the techno-vocational competencies required to obtain money and power.” As such, higher education has submitted to the will of the marketplace, and in the process has become less an education focused on higher things and more a very expensive trade school.

Lawler’s argument in American Heresies proceeds as follows: America never existed as a premodern society, and therefore has only existed as a democracy in the modern world. Inherent in any properly democratic society is a pervading belief of relativism, because the ideas of a definitive and absolute higher authority of any kind are inherently undemocratic. Therefore, higher education as a means to pursue truly higher ends is unlikely ever to exist in a democracy, as such an education is by its very nature undemocratic. What higher education becomes in this vacuum of transcendental truth, then, is a training ground on which to impart the skills and knowledge that are for the present moment required by the market.

America was founded as the modern mechanical world began to flourish, and never experienced the benefit of living in a premodern society. As such, the American understanding of one’s purpose in life is to produce and to work. This American ethos naturally influences and increasingly directs what is referred to as higher education. As the marketplace grows more technical, the demand increases for greater specialization of knowledge and skills. Such areas of study as literature, philosophy, theology, and other humanities are seen as self-indulgences the pursuit of which should be done, if at all, in one’s spare time. If one insists on being formally educated in such wastefully decadent fields, they should harbor no expectation to live what the modern man considers the good life—one filled with riches and privileges. Of course, if the modern man were at all studied in the classics, he would have encountered Aristotle, who famously suggested that the good life was found in contemplation of the deeper things.

Having never been premodern, Americans possess scant understanding of traditions in the way that older societies possess. Americans do not know who they are or what they are supposed to do, and into this spiritual vacuum rushes the influence of a community equally spiritually bereft. Few men reason well, none reasons perfectly, and lacking knowledge of transcendent guiding wisdom and principles, what fills the void is base human nature.

Having always been a democracy, America lacks the experiences and knowledge gleaned from wandering through tribalism, feudalism, monarchy, and the various other old world systems of government common in the histories of much older societies. The only political frames of reference we have of systems not our own are purely academic. In a democracy, “Wisdom and virtue … don’t trump choice.” Instead, choice is the highest aim. Lawler continues: “Democracy is ugly in its relativism, in its easygoing refusal to rank human activities according to the standards of truth, excellence, and nobility.” Accordingly, such notions as wisdom, honor, and virtue are held in far lower esteem and increasingly criticized, because relativism holds that nothing is absolute, and their imposition as objective ideals is considered authoritarianism.

Borrowing from Socrates, Lawler points out that pure democracy lacks any principle of judgment. The democrat, then, goes about his life doing as he so desires, when he so desires. The only possible point of contention is that which limits his “freedom,” even as minute as the suggestion that freedom properly understood is an exercise in self-limitation. The freedom of a democracy opens the door for citizens to become enslaved by their freedom. As Lawler writes, “In terms of tyranny, democrats can be readily seduced to their personal freedom not only to particular tyrants but to impersonal forces such as technology and public opinion formed by no one in particular.” The freedom so enjoyed by Americans becomes a tyrant in that the democrat becomes enslaved by man’s natural longing for freedom. True freedom liberates man from his sinful, self-destructive nature, but lacking a proper education on freedom, man thinks freedom allows him to pursue his every desire.

As noted above, the term “higher education” implies a hierarchy of knowledge, whereby some knowledge is of greater value or import than other knowledge. Indeed, as the student advances in his studies, he should be drawn further up and further into the great mysteries of the soul. The great Greek philosophers, the Church and Desert Fathers, and even Americas founders all demonstrate what proper higher education is, not that one learns how to grow wealthy, but that one continues to learn what is means to be human not just in a community of men, but also as a created being of God.

The purpose for higher education, then, is lifelong humane development. Lawler takes the Aristotelian view that “work is for leisure, and leisure is for contemplation, for thinking about who you are and what you’re supposed to do,” yet as he notes elsewhere, “the excessively resolute determination to doubt personal authority doesn’t really lead to freeing oneself altogether from authority … Because you don’t know who you are, you really don’t know what to do.” A lifelong learner takes pleasure in the unending cultivation of his soul through constant conversation with the great minds and ideas that came before him. A humane education consisting of philosophy, theology, ethics, and literature imparts wisdom, virtue, and knowledge that will help a man live the Aristotelian “good life.” As Lawler writes, “making money is easy, but knowing what to do with it is hard, because the latter depends on the cultivation that allows a person to take pleasure in what is intrinsically worthy for rational and virtuous beings such as ourselves.” And yet today lifelong development is less about leisurely contemplation of higher things, and almost entirely about picking up new skills and competencies demanded by the technological economy.

A democratic education is almost exclusively practical or technical, and does not accommodate the necessary space for leisurely cultivation of the soul. It was Tocqueville who observed that there is no class of American with “the high opinion that the purpose of the human being is to know the truth for its own sake.” Very few today study for pleasure rather than mere profit. Furthermore, Americans do not have a high enough opinion of themselves as transcendent beings, so why should contemplation on higher ideas hold any import? As Lawler writes, this “reduces all real education to acquiring the techno-vocational competencies required to obtain money and power.” No longer do the “self-indulgent pursuits” of the humanities hold value, because they do not prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first century marketplace. Yet Lawler, who does not immediately disparage the techno-focused higher education system, calls for our cognitive elite to hold to a higher standard than mere productivity. The lives of Americans, he suggests, would be less pathological “if imaginations were, once again, filled with what can be loosely called the romance of the soul.”

Perhaps this is why modern society feels like butter scraped over too much bread—not because human nature has changed, but that man as an animal has changed and is living in discord with his nature. He was made in the image of God to seek and understand truth, but learned through his sins to love what is ugly and temporal—but he no longer understands the duality of his own nature; it must be either the one or the other. The loss a truly higher education has more far-reaching consequences than merely that fewer will know the work of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. In not knowing these luminaries, man misses a valuable path to knowing truth, and in the absence of truth he tries to fill the void with mud pies. Can true higher education exist in a democratic society? In pockets, perhaps, but given the naturally relativistic nature of democracy, and lacking any acknowledged higher authority than oneself, it would seem that higher education is destined to serve the lowest common denominator.

Lawler manages to avoid the trap into which so many conservative critics of education fall, which is to criticize higher education full tilt. He acknowledges the reality of the matter—the world has changed, higher education has adapted to accommodate the needs of an evolving marketplace, and that this is unfortunate, but not inherently bad. It is important to be able to provide for others and self, so to that end modern higher education provides adequate service, albeit expensive and ephemeral. However, where Lawler inserts his criticism is in the modern academy’s globalized, production-focused view that time and space for leisure and contemplation, as well as the education upon which to contemplate, is so roundly looked down upon.

Without a proper understanding of what it means to be human, man is pointing his finger at the moon and missing all the heavenly glory. This, indeed, is the present purpose of higher education—to train technicians to serve increasingly specific functions in a global economic structure. As the structure evolves, our technicians will either adapt or be left behind. For those left behind, with what will they be left? Why, they will be left with themselves, of course. Sadly, lacking anything approaching an adequate grounding in the thought that has endured millennia regarding who we are and whom we are meant to be, they will find that to be left with oneself is to be left with a stranger.  

Jeremy A. Kee’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Imaginative Conservative, Crisis Magazine, and the Daily Caller. He is presently conducting research for a project involving the prophetic vision of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Tweet him @KeeJeremyA