Higher education exposes ingratiating talk as the
counterfeit of teaching; rote learning as the counterfeit of thought;
mere opinion as the counterfeit of judgment; enthusiasm as the
counterfeit of principle.
So that’s what it’s not.
If the term “higher education” is to be distinguished
from other forms of learning or training, surely the distinguishing
feature cannot simply be the number of years students have devoted to
the cultivation of one or another specific ability…
No, what the term refers to is the study of things that are
themselves higher; higher in the order of abstraction, higher in that
plane of thought and of action on which the examined life is lived.
Understood in these terms, higher education found itself a century and
a half ago on a collision course with what the general public was
equally pleased to call “the real world,” the world of commerce,
careers and popular estimations of success.
Socrates said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. And he
didn’t accept the Sophists’ clever spin on what comprised worth or truth.
From the first, the very atmosphere of higher education was alive with criticism, with the “Sic et non”
that conduces not to skepticism but to inquiry; with the viva voce that
every aspiring don must endure as more seasoned minds test and taunt
for the purpose of cleansing and empowering. G. K. Chesterton’s great
“Dumb Ox,” Thomas Aquinas, single-handedly and carefully examined some
ten-thousand objections to positions he would oppose or defend.
Brilliantly. That’s the purest form of reasoning and leads to the
liveliest debates. We’ve lost that in modern academia, at least in most
It is a higher education that pulls us up out of the
distractions of the moment and allows us to see further, to see more
clearly where we’ve been, what we’ve done, who we are, who we might
Perhaps under prevailing conditions such an education is simply
beyond the resources—material, personal, even moral resources—of our
colleges and universities. Perhaps the now universal practice of
counting publications and tracking grant revenue as the means by which
to establish and reward members of a faculty is so deeply entrenched
that there can be no genuine community of scholars, no systematic and
disciplined examination of the moral dimensions of life.
But perhaps…..just maybe…..there are more benefactors out there like
the anonymous donors below, who can shore up any remnants we still have
of classical liberal education, with gifts. Given on condition of
intellectual honesty. Start with schools of education, and teach it to