“What was the point of a bachelor of arts degree? Was it to plumb the depths and origins of Western civilization, which had after all invented the university, and to develop the student spiritually and morally? Or was it to set the kid up for a cushy job?”
“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company. In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at -Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable—he doubts, finally, that they even exist. It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place. Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances.Into the vacuum left by the humanities comes science, which by its own admission is unconcerned with the large questions of meaning and purpose. Even so, on campus and elsewhere, science is now taken as the final authority on any important human question—and not always the rigorous physical sciences, either, but the rickety, less empirical, more easily manipulated guesswork of behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, developmental studies, and so on. Nowadays, if we seek insight into the mysteries of the human heart (not high on the academic agenda in any case) we are far more likely to consult a neurobiologist or a social psychologist than Tolstoy or Aristotle. This is not progress.