Conservative Education: Caveat Emptor!

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Much of the blame for the deplorable state of higher education in America today must be traced back to the baneful influence of America’s most revolutionary educationist, John Dewey.  In his enormously influential Democracy and Education (1915), Dewey defined education as “a freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims.”  In this nebulous text, a term such as progressive growth is apt to puzzle the reader at every turn.  Growth toward what end?  The term social is the key.  For Dewey, education was socialization for democratic equality, for the freeing of the capacities of individuals at every level of society to reach their fullest potential, regardless of class, race, and sex.  Consider the following: “A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic.”  I would argue that the abysmal abstraction of such a sentence (all too frequent in Dewey’s writing) is prima facie evidence of a diseased mind.  Nevertheless, there is an underlying drift that is evident enough.  The telos of Dewey’s educational theory is, in the last analysis, nothing less than humanity itself.  However individualistic his jargon might appear, Dewey was a socialist, and the rather ominous “flexible readjustment of its institutions” is directed at any external barrier that might inhibit the social process, the evolutionary movement toward a universal humanity.  Dewey seems to have imagined “humanity” as a celestial choir of voices, stripped of any ethnic, class, or national affinities, joined together in praise of Itself.  He lamented that in 19th-century Europe (particularly in Napoleonic France and in Germany under Prussian hegemony) “the new idea of the importance of education for human welfare and progress was captured by national interests and harnessed to do a work whose social aim was definitely narrow and exclusive.”  He hoped, rather, that a “fuller, freer, and more fruitful association and intercourse of all human beings . . . [might] be instilled as a working disposition of mind.”

Reading these formulations almost a century later, I am appalled by the totalitarian potential that lurks beneath their innocuous phrasing.  Though Dewey seems to reject the Germanic (and Hegelian) idea that education must serve the ultimate aims of the state, it seems that he simply failed to understand that, in our post-Enlightenment world, the modern state is, as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent has argued, the particular and organized embodiment of the ideal of humanity.  But what precisely is this “humanity,” consummated in the omnipotent reality of the state, that the educational endeavor must serve?  As Manent notes, “humanity as universal association is just as invisible as the invisible Church.  We do not know how to determine the form and limits of this association.”  But doesn’t this idol without form or limits, this amorphous monstrosity called “humanity,” serve perfectly the ends of the neocapitalist order, which is by now almost universal in scope?

Arguably, the complete formlessness of the modern college curriculum is the fulfillment of Dewey’s democratization of education as “social process.”  Only today, the jargon has been updated, and the old idol is decked out in the rainbow robes of multiculturalism—the sacred cow that grazes freely upon the well-manicured lawns of academe.  To insist on a curriculum deeply rooted in our classical Greek and Roman antecedents, or to demand a central focus on the Christian vision of human destiny, would be rank heresy.  However, in recent years, a number of colleges billing themselves as conservative alternatives to the liberal status quo have garnered a good deal of media attention, most of them claiming—to some extent—to represent a return to a more traditional and “classical” education.  A few of these schools—like Hillsdale College and Grove City—have lengthy histories; others, like Patrick Henry in Virginia, are upstarts.  All three of these institutions claim to be, in some sense, Christian.  At least two of them—Hillsdale and Patrick Henry—recruit heavily from the homeschooling movement, which is predominantly evangelical.  All of them have challenging academic standards and fairly strict codes regulating student behavior.  Visitors to their campuses almost invariably report that the students are clean cut, well dressed, and polite—a marked departure from the slovenly decorum one finds on most American campuses.  As one might expect, the students who attend such colleges are also overwhelmingly Republican.

How genuinely conservative are these colleges?  If one assumes that to be a conservative in America is to be a staunch defender of the Constitution and the free-market system, and to pay at least lip service to Christian moral principles, then all of these colleges have some claim to their reputations.  Hillsdale has been especially aggressive at marketing its conservative brand.  On its website the college claims unabashedly to be “the leading college in America that is unapologetic in its defense of free enterprise and the principles that made America the most prosperous nation in human history.”  This may sound reminiscent of the grandiose rhetoric one hears incessantly on conservative talk radio, and, indeed, Hillsdale has invested heavily in promoting itself on the Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin shows, where listeners are invited to purchase its Constitution 101 lectures or to request a free subscription to Imprimis, a newsletter that claims a circulation of some 2.8 million worldwide.  At Hillsdale, founded in the 19th century by Baptist abolitionists, the devotion to “free enterprise and prosperity” runs deep, and one detects very little awareness in its publications or in its curricula that the teachings of Adam Smith and Jesus Christ could ever be in conflict.  Some years ago, George Roche III, then president of the college, wrote,

What is necessary for Christian morality is also necessary for a freely emerging marketplace and for the philosophy of limited government.  I don’t think a working marketplace is possible without self-transcending individuals, and that’s a Christian idea.  But it’s also a modern economic idea; the two go together wonderfully well!

By “self-transcending individuals,” did Roche mean those who are prepared to take up Our Lord’s advice to the rich young man to “sell all that you have . . . and follow me”?  Do the Christian libertarians at Hillsdale not feel at least a pang of discomfort when they read the account (in all four Gospels) of Christ’s fury at the moneychangers in the Temple?  Roche left Hillsdale in 1999 under a cloud, but he was instrumental for many years in shaping Hillsdale’s present image and academic priorities.

All of the colleges I have mentioned claim to incorporate a classical emphasis into their curricula.  At Hillsdale this is superficial, at best.  Aside from two required freshman-level “great books” seminars (Great Books in the Western Tradition and Great Books in the British and American Traditions), students are offered a predictable array of humanities options.  While Latin and Greek are offered, they are not core requirements.  In the social sciences, only one course in the Western tradition (before 1600) is required.  Given all the options, a Hillsdale student could easily matriculate with only a marginally better acquaintance with the profound riches of classical and Christian civilization than, say, a Dartmouth grad.

At Grove City College, which bills itself as “Authentically Conservative, Decidedly Christian,” the core curriculum falls short of a rigorously classical standard, but the number of “great books” courses required of all students is more impressive, and the curriculum has a more emphatic Christian emphasis.  The school’s website insists that, although it has been historically associated with Presbyterianism, it preserves “a vision of Christian society transcending denominations, creeds and confessions.”  Students are required to attend at least 16 chapels per semester.  Grove City, like Hillsdale, promotes (at least implicitly) the idea that the progress of civilization toward ever greater individual liberty, and especially economic liberty, is somehow the essence of the biblical message.  The college houses a substantial collection of Ludwig von Mises’ papers, and its think tank, the Center for Vision and Values, has an unmistakably libertarian slant.  At least one of its fellows, Dr. Jeffrey Herbener, has written a book on Mises, and another, Mark Hendrickson, has coauthored a book oxymoronically subtitled The Conscience of Capitalism.  He also advocates a “repackaging” of the liberal arts to rid them of their “anti-business” bias.

Decidedly more rigorous in its core requirements than either Hillsdale or Grove City, Patrick Henry College, sometimes known as “God’s Harvard,” was founded in 1998 in rural Virginia by Michael Farris, who has close ties with the homeschooling movement.  Patrick Henry’s evangelical position is made quite explicit in its Statement of Faith.  Of the more than 20 courses in the core requirements, three are focused on “Biblical Theology” and “Biblical Reason”; others include logic and rhetoric (taught by the classics department), numerous history and government courses, Euclidian geometry, and the usual music, art, and sciences.  Though Latin is required for a “Classical Liberal Arts” major (one of only seven majors offered), neither Latin nor Greek is required in the core.  While Patrick Henry’s almost militantly evangelical slant is admirable in its own way, its insistence on a fundamentalist biblical inerrancy is disturbing, especially when coupled with its somewhat naive assumption that the principles established by the American Revolution are not simply consistent with Holy Scripture but prescriptively ordained there.  Even more disturbing is the section on “Civil Government” included in the lengthy Statement of Biblical Worldview in the college catalog.  There the puzzled reader will find quotations from the Declaration of Independence mingled with biblical citations as if the Declaration were itself Holy Scripture.  We discover, for example, that “government’s first duty is to protect the life, property and other God-ordained inalienable rights of the citizenry,” followed by a string of Old and New Testament citations.  The problem, of course, is that the concept of “inalienable rights” is of Enlightenment derivation and can only at best be inferred from the biblical text, and even then not without wrenching those citations out of their proper historical context.  Equally disturbing, even bizarre, is the claim that “governments must establish their legitimacy on the will of a self-governing people,” followed by a reference to Deuteronomy 17:4-10. This passage is an exhortation to the people of Israel to turn away from false, pagan gods.  It instructs, in verse five, that any man or woman who has committed that “wicked thing” must be publicly stoned.  But the key text is verse seven: “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people.  So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.”  I can only conclude that this sanction for public execution by “the hands of all the people” is somehow to be construed as a model for the republican “will of a self-governing people.”

Hillsdale, Grove City, and Patrick Henry all share, to some degree, the rather idolatrous assumption that the American way of life, its constitutional principles, and its “free-market” economic system embody God’s will for mankind.  Like so many conservatives of this ilk, they tend to see Americans as an exceptional nation with a mission to transform the world in their own image.  Moreover, all three colleges have cultivated a special relationship with the Republican Party and avidly promote political internships for their students in the nation’s capital.  They seem to possess little awareness that the massive concentration of power in Washington is itself a problem.  Hillsdale has extended its “mission” inside the Beltway by the creation of the Allan P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, where Republican operatives sing praises to the “cause of the American idea,” as the Hon. Paul Ryan (who spoke at the center on July 15) put it, genuflecting before the altar of Lincoln.  The Great Emancipator, in Ryan’s view, was great because he returned the nation to the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration, and the work he began was completed when the Constitution was “cleansed” of the taint of slavery by the addition of the Reconstruction Amendments.  That noble work of cleansing included, of course, the 14th Amendment, which the Southern states were forced to ratify, and which has been used ever since to strip the states of their sovereignty and to empower the same federal bureaucracy that Ryan routinely rails against.  Moreover, while “limited government” is endlessly promoted by such conservatives, they seem incapable of recognizing how corporate America relentlessly assaults traditional morality and erodes the cohesiveness of local communities, ultimately augmenting the power of the central state.

Once upon a time, higher education in America was deeply rooted in its religious establishments.  Most of our venerable private colleges and universities were chartered by Christian men who were Episcopalians, Methodist, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and so on.  They would have been appalled at the idea of the “non-denominational” Christianity that characterizes Hillsdale, Grove City, and, to a lesser degree, Patrick Henry.  True, a genuinely conservative college must be rooted in the Christian tradition, but it must be a specific tradition, not a “mere” Christianity stripped of all but its doctrinal essentials—a Christianity that, by the way, is all too susceptible to being absorbed into the American “idea.”  The history of the secularization of America’s colleges is a gloomy tale indeed, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon.  At least two colleges have begun to recover the full scope of the classical and Christian traditions in higher education: New Saint Andrews College (founded in 1994) in Moscow, Idaho, and the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (founded in 1978) in Merrimack, New Hampshire.  At both of these institutions, the core curriculum is the curriculum; there are no majors, or, rather, every student shares the same concentration in classical and Christian liberal arts, and classical languages are required of all.  Just as importantly, both colleges are closely affiliated with religious establishments.  New Saint Andrews is very much a work of Moscow’s Christ Church, a large and dynamic congregation of traditional Calvinists who also run a pastoral-training program featuring rigorous study of biblical Greek and Hebrew.  Thomas More is a Roman Catholic institution in “unreserved fidelity” to the Magisterium and “undivided loyalty” to the bishop of Manchester.  At these colleges, knowledge is not subordinated to political or pragmatic Deweyan social ends but is cultivated for its own sake as, to quote John Henry Newman, “an acquired illumination, . . . a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment.”