"America's Best Colleges! Really?"
Michael S. Swisher
Michael S. Swisher is Chairman of the Board for The St. Croix Review. He is the owner of Bayport Printing House, Inc., that does the printing of The St. Croix Review. This is the speech he presented at our 45th annual meeting celebrating the continued publication of The Review.
This, the forty-fifth annual meeting and dinner of Religion and Society, Inc., the foundation that publishes The St. Croix Review, marks another milestone. It is an occasion for sadness, as it is the first such event since the passing of our founder, Angus MacDonald, and there is an empty space where once was his informing presence. However, it is also an occasion for reassurance, since we are still here and carrying on his efforts. Barry MacDonald and your Board of Directors have worked diligently over the past year at refining our case statement and on other matters relating to promoting subscriptions and fundraising. We continue to publish a good selection of articles in every issue and have a strong group of regular authors.
Angus's memory has recently been the subject of a noteworthy recognition. Dr. John A. Howard, President Emeritus of Rockford College, a long-time supporter of The St. Croix Review, dedicated his book America's Best Colleges! Really? to him. This is not just a kind gesture, but also an appreciation of the objects of Angus's life and work.
Dr. Howard's book takes as its point of departure the annual publication by the magazines U.S. News and World Report and Forbes of lists purporting to list "America's Best Colleges" in a ranked order. These lists quite predictably show Harvard and Yale at the top, followed by the other Ivy League schools and a handful of other "first tier" universities such as Stanford, Chicago, and Duke, the more prominent state universities, and so on down the list. Yet, when we ask the question, "Best - by what standard?" the answer returned is made up of glittering and unquantifiable generalities about the eminence of the faculty, the standards for admission, and the esteem in which the schools are regarded by other academics, employers, and the like.
Conspicuous by its absence from the enumerated qualities is any reference to the schools' attention to what was always regarded as the crucial and central point of higher education - the fitting of our best and brightest young people for future leadership through moral formation. As Dr. Howard outlines in his subsequent pages, not only have "America's best colleges" largely abandoned this historic function, but in many ways have inverted it.
A short while ago, I had a conversation with a friend who is familiar with Harvard Business School, which is probably the pre-eminent postgraduate school of management in the United States. My friend remarked that, after the collapse of the fraud that was Enron, the Harvard faculty felt some embarrassment because Jeffrey Skilling, the president of that company, held a Harvard MBA. Some suggested that perhaps a course in ethics should be required of the business school's students. While some of us might say it is high time that it was, the truth is even worse: offering instruction in ethics at Harvard Business School, or anywhere at the professional or postgraduate level, could only be described as remedial education.
The failure of American colleges to engage in moral education is not a recent phenomenon. It began long ago. Dr. Howard quotes in his book a 1940 address given by Walter Lippmann, one of early 20th-century America's preeminent public intellectuals, warning that:
. . . . during the past forty or fifty years those who are responsible for education have progressively removed from the curriculum of studies the Western culture which produced the modern democratic state. . . . That the prevailing education is destined, if it continues, to destroy Western civilization, and is in fact destroying it. . . .
In a similar vein, the young William F. Buckley, Jr., who went on to become a key figure in the post-World War II revival of conservatism, first came to public attention with the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951. As subsequent experience has shown, and Dr. Howard has documented extensively in his book, the intellectual decay that Buckley pointed out then has since permeated the entire university system and has become even worse in the past sixty years. The moral relativism and politico-economic collectivism which began as philosophical conceits of academics like Herbert Marcuse were joined by the abdication of practical moral authority in the late 1960s and early 1970s by university administrators in the face of the student demonstrations and riots of the day. Such in loco parentis provisions as single-sex dormitories with parietal rules were swept away; college campuses became effective sanctuaries from the enforcement of laws against drug abuse. Forty years later, the student radicals who burnt their draft cards and "occupied," then vandalized, college deans' offices, are now the faculty members and college deans. At many schools, the "transgressive" has become the norm, and personal nihilism or antinomianism now supplement the moral relativism, socialism, and other "isms" that have flourished on campus for decades. In a final twist of inversion, stifling "speech codes" have been imposed to punish anyone who dares to express any criticism of this new order.
Where there is a moral void, there is also quite usually a spiritual one. Roger Kimball, in his recent book The Fortunes of Permanence, observes that:
It is significant that the socialist mentality is usually also an atheistic mentality, where atheism is understood not so much as the disbelief in God as the hatred of God. . . . There is an important sense in which religion as traditionally understood reconciles humanity to imperfection and to failure. Since the socialist sets out to abolish failure, traditional religion is worse than de trop; it is an impediment to perfection.
When I first read that passage just a few days ago, I could not help but think of the broadcast of the Democratic National Convention this past September, on the occasion when a motion to restore a mention of God to the party's platform was brought to the floor. Though it was clear that the "nays" had it, the embarrassed chairman, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, ruled the motion had carried - and was greeted by a loud chorus of boos and catcalls. One might expect Democrats to recognize that such a motion was merely lip service, and, if nothing else, made practical political sense in a nation where the vast majority of the population profess some sort of religious belief. However, the delegates were not reacting to the motion with any such calm rationality - their cries of derision were candid expressions of their deeply held sentiments, amongst which hatred of God is one of the most virulent. It is sobering to reflect that a great many, perhaps even most of those delegates, were alumni of "America's best colleges."
What has any or all of the foregoing to do with The St. Croix Review?
We are all victims, directly or indirectly, of the moral inversion that has permeated the academic world. In the direct sense, there is not a person, apart from the very oldest among us, who has escaped its effects on his own education. There are lacunae left in our knowledge, and abundant falsehoods that we must learn to identify as such before we can reject them. Indirectly, we are surrounded by a popular culture in which the arts, literature, and entertainment have been tainted, if not completely poisoned, by intellectual toxins.
The enemies of liberty and order, indeed, the enemies of Christendom and Western civilization, have made what the Italian Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci approvingly called "the long march through the institutions." This has been the work of generations rather than years, and it will take generations, rather than years, to reverse it. What do we do in the meantime?
In the past, when the universities have ignored or suppressed true and valuable knowledge, independent scholars and scientists created alternative institutions in which it could flourish. Today we associate what is called the Renaissance with the arts, but the 15th-century rediscovery of ancient Latin and Greek literature preceded them. The universities of the time were not hospitable to these subjects, so those who were interested in their study pursued it outside them in learned societies. The flourishing of art, music, and architecture of the Renaissance were the outgrowths of their efforts. Eventually the universities embraced the classics. Then, in the 17th century, when early scientists such Galileo, Boyle, and Newton began to explore the foundations of astronomy, chemistry, and physics, the universities were no more hospitable to them than they had earlier been towards classical studies. Scientists therefore founded such organizations as the Accademia dei Lincei and the Royal Society as venues for their interests.
The St. Croix Review of course is not an institution of equal importance to the foregoing, but it is serving, in its humble way, a comparable purpose. Angus MacDonald was both a deeply moral man and the beneficiary of a first-rate education at a time before intellectual corruption had pervaded the academy. He founded our journal as a forum in which well-informed writers with sound principles could present their work, and intelligent readers looking for truth unobscured by what Bob Tyrrell has called the "Kultursmog," could find it. Edmund Burke spoke of the need to love the "little platoon" to which we belong, and this is ours. We have been doing this valuable labor since 1967. With your God's help, and your continued assistance, let us hope to go on doing it for decades to come. *