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A Tale of Two Houses

A Tale of Two Houses

Jake Meador’s article in The Atlantic* about the decline in American church attendance gave me a different perspective on some thoughts I’ve been mulling over about the other great non-profit American institution: higher education.

Meador begins with the question, “What if the problem isn’t that churches are asking too much of their members, but that they aren’t asking nearly enough?”

Part of this problem is a cultural issue, according to Meador:

Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.

Meador goes on to describe the identity crisis of American churches,

The tragedy of American churches is that they have been so caught up in this same world that we now find they have nothing to offer these suffering people that can’t be more easily found somewhere else. American churches have too often been content to function as a kind of vaguely spiritual NGO, an organization of detached individuals who meet together for religious services that inspire them, provide practical life advice, or offer positive emotional experiences.

The decline in church attendance tracks with a loss of church identity as a house of prayer that expects its members to give their time and energy to the religious community. Rather than providing a bulwark against the culture, the church has conformed to the culture in the hopes of remaining relevant.

I think this may be a tale of two houses. The fact that the two largest, and longstanding, non-profit institutions in the nation are under threat at the same time is no coincidence. Like the church, American higher education is witnessing the first significant decline in enrollment since the 1950s, and the growing consensus is that a college degree might not be worth the cost.

Certainly, the continual stream of scandals over college admissions, free speech on campus, and Title IX violations has not helped matters. But these seem to be tremors of a deeper fault. What if the more fundamental problem in the American academy is a loss of institutional identity that has nothing to do with conservative or liberal ideology? What if the modern university simply is no longer dedicated to being a house of learning and a community of scholars?

Like the church, many colleges and universities capitulate to the culture of workism, or what Jacques Ellul once described as the “joyful serfdom” of the technological society. This can be seen in both what is taught in American higher education on the whole and how the institutions are organized.

Today, college degrees are utilitarian documents used to secure good jobs. American workism undermines the traditional purposes of higher education, things like the pursuit of knowledge and the development of virtue. John Henry Newman described the goal of a college education to be “a philosophical habit of mind” characterized by “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” However, American workism dismisses such notions. The truth is actual learning is hard, and it takes more effort to understand the world than to earn a degree.

Ellul explains that in such a culture, “The university has to become a technical school so that each student may instantly fill a position in this technological society.” The skill-oriented servile arts have overtaken the liberal arts as the dominant curriculum, because the servile arts better prepare people for work, to exist as comfortable cogs in the wheel of the technological society. Learning to live well, asking questions about our existence and creation, challenging the status quo—these are the domain of the liberal arts. They are impractical for a culture dedicated to working as efficiently as possible.

This move to the servile arts includes the closing of non-technical programs like literature, mathematics, history, and philosophy, which is happening with greater regularity. It also means the abandonment of the institution as a house of learning, as a community that pursues knowledge as its raison d’être. Today, Americans learn in order to work, not in order to learn.

We can see this in how most colleges and universities are run. Students are described as customers. Credentials (e.g. degrees, majors, badges, certificates) are the product. Truth and virtue are biproducts at best. Education is streamlined, painless, and unobtrusive. Multiple learning modalities and plug-and-play curricula cater to students’ hectic and harried lives.

American colleges and universities also spend less and less on learning both in the classroom and in scholarship. Library services and full-time faculty numbers are shrinking. Teaching is farmed out to adjuncts or underpaid instructors. Many institutions spend less than 25% of their budgets on academic expenses, while a college executive’s salary is frequently five to ten times that of the faculty.

None of this is breaking news. Meador’s insight is not that it is happening but why it is happening. There is a poison of workism, and Meador advises churches to “be an antidote” for a culture that has “adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.” Similarly, American higher education should stop kneeling at the altar of workism. Joseph Pieper warned that an over-emphasis on work and the servile arts “brings about precisely the inhuman dimension so typical of the world of absolute work: it accomplishes the final bondage of man.”

Continuing to transform colleges and universities into job-training centers will annihilate the nation’s house of learning and further dehumanize the culture. Colleges and universities, if they want to remain relevant, would be better off presenting a different model of human society, one that is centered on the exchange of ideas and a willingness to sacrifice material gains for the promotion of virtue.

*”The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church” by Jake Meador, The Atlantic (July 29, 2023).

This article appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted here with permission.

Image credit: Public domain

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    August 21, 2023, 9:50 am

    "Colleges and universities, if they want to remain relevant, would be better off presenting a different model of human society, one that is centered on the exchange of ideas and a willingness to sacrifice material gains for the promotion of virtue."

    Given man's fallen state, this is not going to happen.


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