Universities Must Seek Arete

The elite universities stand, an imposing edifice of history and tradition and collective prowess, a monument more lasting than bronze, but a brand lacking in mission. The International Herald Tribune reports on universities dealing with the troubling prevalence of mangement consulting and financial jobs being almost the automatic next step for many graduates.

“Is this what a Harvard education is for?” asked [Howard] Gardner, who is teaching the seminars at Harvard, Amherst and Colby with colleagues. “Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?”

I do not say that such personal choices are wrong, but when such a pattern has taken over to a greater extent than anyone can remember, we have a problem. I do not doubt that the workings of the corporate world are interesting, complex, even fascinating. Still, so are many other things. I know full well that this is true of linguistics, of physics, of history, of Chinese philosophy and of chemical engineering as well. What is wrong is not that people are making personal choices out of personal interest or even concern for fiscal responsibility. What is wrong is that we have become a society that for hidden reasons finds these things consistently the most interesting of all.

Change the world, they say. Pursue your ideals, they say. Per aspera ad astra, they say. Yes, clichés, all of them. Yet what we are left with is students who by the end are so jaded, so under-stimulated, that they may see with the eyes of machines, not of real humans. Only high ideals founded on truth, not pragmatic goals, can propel students to such action. A generation of capable young people will be wasted on lives of self-serving careers. Yes, they say, even in the church, that job is not equal to calling, and calling does not end at the bounds of “career”, but any thought that consigns career to the “unimportant” pile is gravely mistaken.

It is an inner battle for most people, what should be and what needs be. Neither is it always a simple pitting of one against another. Few people seriously believe their life’s goal can be to accumulate wealth.

For this reason universities want to challenge students to public service. They recognize that this is an important thing, even if they do not realize quite why this should be. But tell me: which education will inspire this in students, one that makes haphazard-looking requirements and leaves students to make their own judgements with only technical-“scientific” help from education or one that confronts students and forces them to wrestle with truth, with priorities, with purpose?

A completely anti-judgemental atmosphere will not help. Seeking to challenge students only to the social action that the establishment desires will not help. Avoiding trying to influence students’ perceptions and form them in the image of beauty will not help. It’s not about ramming the oppressive dominant metanarrative down everyone’s gullet but about making true seekers of what is true and honourable and noble and beautiful.

If we fail to do this, we will fail to convince anyone but by his gut instinct that something is right about adding to society in such a way that does not have to be explained by five lectures on economics. Otherwise, who is to say that there may be something better for a person than riches and the appearance of well-being and some work that isn’t boring, if it is a personal thing with no applicable transcendent truths? Is it not a goal of education to bring out the best of the human spirit, what is hidden in instincts we judge to be good, what Christians believe to be found in the essence of God’s image?


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