The Ivy League as a Mirror of the World: A Response to Anthony Esolen

Last week, Prof. Esolen reflected on the biases and pretentious political opportunism exhibited by many American elites—particularly those who have brought a sense of exceptional privilege and arrogance to the levers of centralized government. I heartily agree with the crux of that argument, and with the deserved criticism directed at certain renowned institutions of higher learning, including Princeton University. Still, the satirical element of that discussion ought never be misunderstood. Having read much else of Prof. Esolen’s admirable prose, and invoking the freedom of a fellow Princetonian, I would like to add my own postscript to that article—an addendum with which (hopefully) the original author will largely agree.

Let me begin thus. History provides no shortage of horrid examples, wherein small cliques of ruling elites have stunned and oppressed the disenfranchised masses—have taken the whole of a nation’s traditions and beliefs, and attempted to turn them inside-out and upside-down. Tyrants and oligarchs have sometimes made men slaves, and bewitched them into the pursuit of profitless endeavors, even unto death.  The Protestant Reformation in England was in some ways a manifestation of exactly this type of elitist cabal—“a tyranny of literates over illiterates” in G.K. Chesterton’s simplistic, but not altogether misleading, phrase. But let it be clearly seen, that the threat we face at present—as an American nation, and even in the wider sphere of the Catholic Church—is not strictly cast in this mold.

We need not speak of places like Princeton University with the hushed tones that imply the presence of a wizard or puppeteer behind the curtain. It is true that a disproportionate, and perhaps inordinate, percentage of our modern politicians and supposed cultural leaders proceed from the halls of such places. And it is disturbingly patent, as Prof. Esolen eloquently describes, that too few of these persons “habitually examine their consciences”; too few “enter the confessional”; too few bring faith and humility into their daily lives and vocations.

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But the sad, sobering humor about a place like Princeton, or every other institution of culture or learning which has surrendered to the tide of unbelief, relativist morals, and distorted reason, is that it pretends to lead, and has lost itself in its own illusion. With all the trumpets and fanfare of a bygone age, Princeton would proudly emblazon its escutcheon “In the Nation’s Service and In the Service of All Nations”—and would then proceed to throw another multimillion-dollar grant and tenure to a Freudian psychologist investigating the sublime therapeutic value of recycled-sheet-metal Cubist sculpture. The substance and vigor of such places are pouring out, as from bloody wounds, and they are living on through reputation and stowed capital. Princetonians indeed average among the highest salaries and largest accumulated wealth of our citizenry—after having been steeped for four years in the socialistic flavors of wealth-hatred. They are, just like the world-at-large beyond their gates, awash in incommensurable contradictions. Amidst all their glamour, the highest citadels of the American intellectual tradition have simply become profligates and flatterers to the temper of the times; they are little more than mirrors of the world.

Therefore, we may rightly condemn these universities, and the guardians who have carried them to this end; but we condemn them especially because they were meant to be something more. Out of a perfect maelstrom of greed and indifference, they have surrendered their supreme trust; they have dropped the mantle; they have bent and twisted the laurel crown. But it is indeed all the worse for us, because we expected better from them.

One might argue that we were misguided in thinking so well of such institutions, since supposed sages and wise men have too often been exposed for frauds. Collegiate faculties, it seems, are increasingly crammed with intellectual dwarves very neatly dressed up in robes. However, we need only appeal to a rudimentary sense of history, to know that scholars were not always to be mistrusted, and learned men had sometimes really been learned. It is not the case that universities or colleges inevitably devolve into this sort of intellectual dissipation and moral degeneracy. Even in a world where the credentialed Doctor or Magister seems utterly unable to teach, still someone must know something, and someone will be seeking to be taught. The point is, when the best minds, or best academies, have no articulate answer to the deepest questions of human life, you can be certain that a horrible filth and rot has drilled through the very core of an entire society.

That the wealthy, or educated, or influential classes of the twentieth century increasingly found civilization too heavy a burden to uphold is not a thing to be celebrated. That the strongest man was cut down, or the finest actor laughed off the stage, is simply the stuff of tragedy. It is undoubtedly true that many erstwhile decent souls, enraptured by fads and fashions, have followed supposed elites into the riot and confusion of libertinism; every day so many Western eyes turn with mockery and scorn away from the saving cross of Christ. Yet, in every experience of life, when the noble beacons are put out and the highest citadels fall, it is much the worse for the good man, since he is the one left bereft and alone.

In his article, Prof. Esolen observed with some just indignation, “The world of the Ruling Class is not real.” Indeed, it is not. Yet, what exactly do we increasingly find in the world of every other human being? No one could deny that the artificiality of our surroundings is ever-growing. As if a distaste for reality is in the air we breathe, we turn to every type of media, every semblance of machine or device, so that even the poorest and simplest among us are surrounded by it. If some are unemployed, unwanted, unhappy, unloved, at least Americans console themselves with the knowledge that none are unplugged.

In every nation of the earth, in every class and walk of life, there are certainly many good and decent people struggling for their families, for their livelihoods, and for their faith. But the heart of the problem is not simply Princeton, as it is not simply Yale, or Ohio State, or the Massachusetts General Court, or America itself.

Returning, then, to the origin of this article, I believe that there is indeed a kind word to be said on behalf of all once-noble colleges and schools—and perhaps especially on behalf of a place like Princeton. There is a common thread that links all modern universities with their medieval forerunners at the apex of Christendom: that is, the pursuit of the Truth. It is a need that is at the root of Man, signed upon him by God the Father who gave him being, and Christ the Son and Logos who was his Redeemer.

All true universities, albeit with variable proportion and effectiveness, manifest this pursuit. Institutions that seek to efface this aspect of their mission must set about the impossible task of destroying themselves. The emptiness of modernist and relativist doctrine cannot bear the weight of any university’s purpose and lineage; the greatness of old Princeton, or old Oxford, or any other such school, must wholly vanish, lest it collapse upon itself. In some quarters the hourglass is already running low. I am reminded, therefore, of a quotation that was especially dear to me during my time at Princeton, which I first saw inscribed upon a lancet arch amongst the university’s stone halls. It reads: “Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die.”

Were all the pedants lost in peevish madness, still the majestic ordered beauty of Princeton’s gothic cloisters and quadrangles would set earnest young gentlemen and ladies on the path to God. The moldering books in the vaults of the library would tell them of the one Truth, which is Christ, that some have intentionally obfuscated or disguised. For “if these shall hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the crest of Harvard University.


  • James P. Bernens

    James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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