What Have We Learned from Universities?


May 6, 2014

The recent news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission of prelates to reevaluate a former Pontifical university in Peru has elicited a few sardonic remarks, and perhaps even some earnest hopes, that the Vatican might take a similarly incisive interest in the condition of certain Catholic institutions in the United States. As unlikely as that circumstance might be, I admit that the state of higher education in America, both Catholic and secular, has been lately on my mind.

My thoughts, interestingly enough, revolve around a few words spoken some weeks ago by a very good, honest, and holy missionary priest. This aged man, whose attention to heavenly things is palpable in his every word and posture in the celebration of the Mass, was addressing in his homily the virtue of wisdom, when he turned and said, quite distinctly: “Wisdom is not always—or even often—found in the universities!

It was a poignant remark, as true as it was striking. Who, having ever spent significant time in a modern university setting, could deny it? Perhaps it is an odd notion to see repeated in such a magazine as Crisis, where so many of the contributors are individuals affiliated with academia, and many indeed are renowned for the intensity of their scholarship. But to express such a sentiment is no exercise in anti-intellectualism. Those who have the deepest regard for the Truth—for real and abiding knowledge—will not hesitate to become the most trenchant critics of those places and minds where learning pretends to be, but is not.

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The past weeks have seen a number of very useful articles published in these pages considering, among other things, the deplorable lack of ordered thinking in our nation’s public discourse, the peculiar rise of emotivism and sentimental tyranny as a method of resolving disputes, and the increasing disregard, at the highest levels, for the greatest literature and moral philosophy the world has ever known. Now, considering these rather severe deficiencies in the present abilities of the modern American citizenry, we are faced with the incontrovertible data that more men and women than ever before are attending, and have graduated from, our institutions of higher learning. According to information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, nearly 60 percent of mature Americans (aged 25 or older) have attended college, over 30 percent have attained bachelor’s degrees, and more than 11 percent have earned some advanced graduate credential.

Of these so many millions who have experienced our universities, it is right to ask: in what did their experiences consist? In this age of increasingly narrow specialization, many graduates have attained places within any multitude of desirable career tracks. Faced with the fierce realities of a bureaucratic and technocratic culture, they have gained the passwords to enter offices of employment, to begin in elite professions, to be licensed, and stamped, and approved by the gatekeepers of the way—though, so very often, it is only the way of the world. By every material and sociological measure, we are told, they have gained much. But have they learned?

Whatever expertise they have attained, there is one thing, I fear, that our schools have instilled in young men and women to an extraordinary extent—that is, the unabashed belief that each person is the center of his own universe. Perhaps I am mistaken—and I have no doubt that concentrated study could find a thousand causes and effects for those deficits of knowledge and wisdom that now pervade our academic establishments—but I am of the firm opinion that the most poisonous aspect of our current university culture is the unchecked, omnipresent and morbidly infectious power of intellectual pride. It is chiefly the product of an imbalance, of an education that eschews the type of firm spiritual development that is scarcely seen in present times, except at a few robust centers of Catholic learning. But—as I have argued elsewhere—some remnant of normalcy might still be found in unexpected places, even in those bruised and broken institutions where the memory of excellence, and of a better past, stubbornly persists.

Nonetheless, this peculiar feat of the university—of raising students in esteem without demanding from them a corresponding rise in the fullness of knowledge—should be weighed against every statistic that claims our nation to be more scholarly than ever before. For a school to fail a pupil in this way is to conspire in one of the worst frauds that can be perpetrated upon a soul. The taint of bloated pride drives to the root of a man’s reason, altering his judgment in nearly ever matter that comes before his contemplation. More and more skill in abstruse practical science does not counter it—by a hideous trick it feeds the furnace, or enables it, and brings the shallow pretense of intellectual advancement to mask the growth of a spiritual void which will not be undone. Of this particular defect in some supposedly learned men, John Henry Newman once lamented:

There is a want of naturalness, simplicity, and childlike teachableness in them…. They start off when you least expect it: they have reservations, make distinctions, take exceptions, indulge in refinements, in questions where there are really but two sides, a right and a wrong. Their religious feelings do not flow forth easily, at times when they ought to flow….

Hilaire Belloc, pondering the same phenomenon in The Path to Rome, was less gentle in rebuke:

And, by the way, would you like to know why universities suffer from this curse of nervous disease? Why the great personages stammer or have St. Vitus’ dance, or jabber at the lips, or hop in their walk, or have their heads screwed round…. Eh? I will tell you. It is the punishment of their intellectual pride, than which no sin is more offensive to the angels.

And what of St. Francis Xavier, who, in the midst of his saving missions in the East, wrote pleadingly to his Jesuit superiors in the year 1543:

It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out everywhere like a madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, “Ah! what a multitude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell!”

These are poignant words to be repeated at this time of year, when so many will be passing as graduates from academic halls. Is there anything to remember, especially as Catholics, along the way of such a precarious journey? Is there any proper remedy against the enticements of intellectual tyranny, and the endless falsity of pride?

Aside from our unflagging devotion to Christ and the Mass (which should require no explanation here), there are two pieces of advice that come immediately to mind, both further pointing to our need for great reservoirs of humility, patience, and faith. On the one hand, we do well to exercise intellectual modesty by accepting good teachers when, and if, they can be found. In many cases they are rare—I have been privileged to personally encounter a small handful of such individuals who deserve enormous respect, and will surely never be forgotten. But those masters whom we do not know or cannot find—or even those who have long since passed—we can always meet in the enduring memory of books.

Secondly, we must always recall the limits of our own knowledge, and admit that education or learning is not something exclusive to the universities. This lesson is much obscured in the contemporary world; but it is a plain fact that edification is something that can be done, and will be done, and must be done at any place and any time on the road of life. Of the authors I have just quoted above, not a single one of them was ever assigned in any course I ever studied, yet I consider their words quite indispensable. To meander prayerfully onwards from work to work, from master to master, is a great part of the process of learning—perhaps the best part—and it is a path available to anyone anywhere, regardless of age or ability. We remember that some of the wisest men in the history of world never stepped foot inside a university, nor even knew what a university was. The passing predilections of modernity do not controvert this startling reality. And if I have been lately blessed with the opportunities of formal study, all the more must I pause to remind myself that my education has only just begun.

Wisdom,” said that holy priest, “is not always—or even often—found in the universities!

Pray, Lord, at the end of days, let it be found in us.


  • 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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