The issue is how to best preserve what is good about American higher education. And that good is found in its diversified excellence.
Teaching young people is getting harder. Every year, there is more they don’t know and more they are unready to acquire. Here’s a glimpse into the nature of the obstacles.
As we were covering Federalist #51, a student expressed confusion about Madison’s statement that “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
I assumed that this pretty good student was intrigued but baffled by the suggestion that human beings might pursue justice at the expense of liberty. Anticipating a fruitful discussion, I asked a couple of exploratory questions only to learn that he had been flummoxed by the word “end.” To him, “end” meant termination, destruction, death. Why would James Madison argue that “Justice is the death of government”? Trying to conceal my surprise, I pointed out that “end” can also mean “purpose,” as in “Justice is the purpose for which government is instituted.”
There are online resources geared toward students, like vocabulary.com, that define potentially troublesome words within a text. The site’s Federalist #51 glossary contains 42 words; “end” is not among them. Perhaps it should be. A quick canvas of the class showed that this student’s unfamiliarity with the Federalist’s usage was not idiosyncratic; only his curiosity-driven courage to reveal and remedy his ignorance was.
Of course, language is always in flux, as meanings shift and fall out of use. However, the erosion in this case seems to me to be very serious. It indicates philosophic and spiritual impoverishment, following upon the victory of Thomas Hobbes, who decisively jettisoned the notion of ends in the sense of ultimate purposes.
For two millennia, from Aristotle forward, when one wanted to address the “why” of a thing, one worked with four categories of causation: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. Hobbes’s allergy to the notion of a final cause can be seen in the full title of his famous work, Leviathan, or The Matter [material cause], Forme [formal cause], and Power [efficient cause] of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil.
His rejection of end-as-purpose is made explicit in this famous passage from chapter 11:
For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. . . . Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. . . . So that in the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.
According to Hobbes, our only end is death—an end the individual wishes to stave off rather than seek out.
One consequence of students being so thoroughly imbued with Hobbes’ outlook is that the “books of the old moral philosophers” are increasingly inaccessible. It isn’t just this particular usage of the word “end” that is disappearing but the whole accompanying ethos and orientation toward the world, from Aristotle’s teleological view of organic nature (wherein the seed aims at the mature, fully realized form of itself) to any higher conception of man’s purpose in being.
The young used to be schooled in these ultimate conceptions in the home or the parish church where, for example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1646) would be drummed into them. It began:
Question: “What is the chief end of man?”
Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy God forever.”
From this lofty yet concise view of the human end arose a corresponding view of the place of learning in a human life. John Milton gave it classic expression in his 1644 work Of Education:
The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with these Christian formulations, I suggest turning to Aristotle for a congruent philosophic version, drawn from book 10, chapter 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics:
So if the intellect is something divine in comparison to the human being, the life in accord with this intellect would also be divine in comparison to the human life. But one ought not—as some recommend—to think only about human things because one is a human being, nor only about mortal things because one is mortal, but rather to make oneself immortal, insofar as that is possible, and to do all that bears on living in accord with what is the most excellent of the things in oneself. For although that most excellent thing is small in bulk, in point of its capacity and the honor due it, it prevails by far over everything. And it would seem that each person even is this thing, if in fact it is what is authoritative and better in him.
Needless to say, this is not the approach to the life of the mind that prevails on college campuses. Leaving out of account what our current utilitarian habits mean for the otherworldly fate of our souls, my concern as a teacher is that the restriction to material and efficient causes (think of Machiavelli’s “effectual truth”) impairs the full amplitude of student response and the full scope of student inquiry.
Our native powers of reasoning have been artificially truncated. Lacking much sense of either formal or final causation, students today arrive at college ill-prepared to claim their rightful inheritance—a legacy that Michael Oakeshott in his wonderful little book, The Voice of Liberal Learning, called “three thousand years of the fortunes and misfortunes of human intellectual adventure.”