Saturday night. Too much had already been drunk for the evening to go anywhere good. I slumped down in my chair to watch the spinning record and hear the low drone of voices, offended and offending with rhythmic regularity. So this is the future of academia, I mused: a bunch of twenty-somethings getting drunk on cheap whiskey.
The future of academia, and in particular of the liberal arts, does not merely gnaw at the minds of anxious Ph.D. students; it has taken a good deal of bytes out of the internet as well. In his recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Terry Eagleton argued that liberal arts are in jeopardy, not merely because of the decline in interest in the humanities, but also because of the current structure of the university.
As academic institutions become more economically driven, Eagleton argued, their emphasis shifts more and more toward STEM fields. Scientific research offers tangible and monetary goods, while research in philosophy or English offers intangible benefits, if it offers benefits at all. Eagleton lays the blame for the humanities’ decline at the feet of capitalism: Education for its own sake stands no chance in a production economy.
While Eagleton gives an illuminating analysis of the state of the university, I fear he overlooks the real issue at the heart of education. For the liberal arts to thrive, our attitude toward education can be neither utilitarian nor its opposite : education as a means of production is as meaningless as education for its own sake. On that lonely Saturday night, as I walked home through deserted Hyde Park streets, my friend chivalrously accompanying me, his tragic mask, whether through fatigue or the peculiar intimacy of late-night walks, fell away. “But, don’t you want to be happy?” I asked. “Oh, Rebekah,” he replied, “I’ve given up on that.” The topic of conversation was the academic life, why we do what we do. Through my friend’s brief response, I realized what is destroying the university. It is the greatest sin against the Holy Spirit. It is despair.
The liberal arts have been separated from their end. The humanities exist to to cultivate love: love of God, love of neighbor, love of the terrifying beauty that is this world. But to love a thing truly, one must know the truth about it. Having given up on finding truth in our studies, we liberal artists have launched ourselves on a slow descent into nothingness. Engaged in the futile exercise of thinking for its own sake, we have no hope. Academia has become what Auden describes in his poem “Limbo Culture”:
The language spoken by the tribes of Limbo [read: the college of the humanities]
Has many words far subtler than our own
To indicate how much, how little, something
Is pretty closely or not quite the case,
But none you could translate by Yes or No,
Nor do its pronouns distinguish between Persons.
Even in my first year as a Ph.D. student, I have noticed that nothing is wrong, but is merely “problematic,” a “question.” We do not say what things are but what they’re not. Our studies are divorced from the world in which we live. We do not revel in the beauty of creation but in man-made theories, the gobbledygook spoken by the chimera tribesmen of Limbo.
At the funeral of my late professor and friend, Karl Maurer, his brother related how while in the hospital Karl was listening to “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah when the doctor walked into the room and began a long string of questions. With the authority of the pope, Karl rapped, “Listen!” And, silently, doctor and patient listened to the end of the piece together. As teacher just as patient, Karl ceaselessly directed the gaze of his friends and associates toward what was beautiful. His love for it was inexhaustible and infectious. In my year as a graduate student, his example has been both a reminder to love truth and beauty and an invocation to be the model Karl was for me.
The university’s current obsession with gibberish, with meaningless theory, distinction, and sub-distinction is ultimately a rejection of the goodness of reality. But, as lovers of the beauty of all created things, it is ours to insist fiercely upon this beauty and to share continually our joy in it. In “The Chimeras,” Auden warns, “No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking, / And do not let your goodness self-deceive you. / It is good that they are but not that they are thus.” Some people are too lost to save, and we endanger ourselves by associating too much with them. But, John promises us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We cannot change anyone, but we can love the light and reflect it in ourselves. And this, for however long I am given, is what I hope to do.