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To Hell With College

I ask my readers not to be shocked by the title of this essay. "To Hell With Culture" was the title of my last essay published in Chronicles, in September 1994. Readers of it saw that I was not an enemy of culture; and now I am not an enemy of higher education. I wish merely to emphasize that the problems are wrongly stated. Culture is not being threatened, but civilization is—for many reasons, one of them being the accepted idea that culture is of a higher order than civilization. And now it is not colleges that are threatened, but intelligence and civility—for many reasons, among them the lopsided belief that these virtues are the outcome of higher education. The opposite is true: the quality of higher education depends on the respect that people have for intelligence and civility.

Allow me to begin with a long-range view. In the histories of great nations universities were seldom important. The universities of Italy had little to do with the art and the literature of the Renaissance. At the peak of the Elizabethan Age, the influences of Oxford and Cambridge were nugatory. During the 18th century, the university of France was creaking and antiquated; the influence of the Sorbonne on the French Revolution in 1789 was nil. Yet those were glorious periods in the history of those nations.

In the 19th century, there came a change—the rise of universal education, among other things. Among...

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