Why Bother Going to College?

In his famous introductory chapter to A Guide for the Perplexed, the economist E. F. Schumacher talked of his “perplexity” at going to Oxford, perhaps the most famous university in the world. The title of Schumacher’s book was the same as that of a book of the medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides. The perplexity of the medievals was over the origins of the utter brilliance of Aristotle’s reasoning, which they had just rediscovered and needed to relate to contents of the books of revelation. Faith sought reason—fides quaerens intellectum. The perplexity of the modern student, on the other hand, is rather about what he is taught in college. Does it have anything to do with the reality he knew by his daily experience? The best short book to read on this issue is that of Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages.

After some dismaying experiences in the university, Schumacher discovered that the important things about life, death, and reality — including the fact that there is a reality — were simply never treated. Such issues did not constitute a part of the “core curriculum.” This “core,” if there is one, needs to be carefully examined at any institution. Look even more carefully when a school has a core or an agenda but does not tell the student what it is. It is true that no one would need to go to a university if he already knew everything taught there. On the other hand, there is something called, with Newman, The Idea of a University, that, like Plato himself, stands in judgment of actual institutions.

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The important questions and their answers, Schumacher observed, were not dealt with in his university experience. Moreover, the reason that they were not addressed was said to be “scientific.”  That is, the scientific methods taught there were so brilliantly designed that most of the important questions of human life were excluded from consideration on scientific grounds!  Such issues did not come under the object that the methods were capable of treating. Therefore, they were assumed not to exist. This approach is usually called “reductionism.” What we see in the academic world is not determined by what we see with our own eyes but by methods designed by men to see what their theories allow them to see. It is not that such methods are not valuable and worthy to do what they are designed to do. We can know much of what is important, but not by such methods alone.

Chesterton put it well in his book, St. Thomas Aquinas, a book that should not be missed:

The abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each (modern philosophy) started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.

A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worthw knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.

Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.

These mines of which we speak here, of course, are found not in the ground but in the mind, or better in institutions that presumably deal with the mind. The ones usually called universities or colleges are our subjects. Their energies absorb a good percentage of our gross national product and occupy the lives of about half the population at one time or another in their lives. But thinktanks and media of all sorts, even libraries and museums, must be included as these are also the places where things learned filter out into the world. Very famous men have contributed to construction of these mines. Actually, they are usually connected with each other. (For how this is so, see Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience; no other book makes us more aware of how things fit together.) We are amazed at their intricacy and outward hiddenness. We do not often know that they will explode until we chance to step on them. Sometimes they erupt with almost nuclear force.

All disorders of the polity begin in disorders of the soul. There is no reform of polity that does not include a reform of the men who constitute it. No study of politics or economics can be found that does not presuppose a study of the soul, that does not presume a metaphysics and a theology, even though it claims to reject the existence or necessity of either. It was Plato who first, for most of us, taught the polity’s relation to the soul. The polity is the soul writ large. Plato will still teach us, if we read him. Indeed, there is no such thing as a real university or college in which the constant reading of Plato does not go on in the minds and hearts of both students and faculty. To attend college and never to have read Plato there is, in essence, not to have gone to college.

But, one might object, Plato is an “ancient,” not a “modern.” Wasn’t there a “war” between ancients and moderns? Plato lived before almost all the “revolutions.” This distinction between ancients and moderns, based on the idea that somehow a thing is more “relevant” or “true” because it is more recent, most students will find amusing — once they really read Plato or Aristotle or Augustine. They will find these latter and others like them (Cicero, Sophocles, Thucydides, Tacitus, Origen, Bonaventure) more exciting and up-to-date than anything that is said to have taken their place.

We often find that our academic courses begin in 1900, or perhaps with the French Revolution, or the Protestant Reformation, or Machiavelli, or the discovery of the New World. Whenever we see this happening in our courses, we must be ready to look elsewhere and seek out what we are not presented. The fact is that very few human truths or errors were not already treated by the Greeks, by Plato and Aristotle. Not to know this is a very serious intellectual impediment.

Another common misdirection is to think that one goes to college in order to get a job. Colleges and universities, even philosophies themselves, are said to be for pragmatic purposes, for practical things. There is nothing wrong with jobs or making a living. It is a normal part of normal lives. But we must ask ourselves the question of whether this making a living is what a college is about. Are there not questions about the whole, about what everything is all about? It is the greatest of human confusions to pursue something as an end which is merely a means.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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