Anthony Esolen on Wondering or Wandering Through College Education
This spring at our college’s awards ceremony I was sitting next to the father of one of my brightest students. His son was graduating in biology, summa cum laude. But that’s not what the father wanted to talk to me about. He wanted to express his gratitude for my being a kind of spiritual guide for his son.
If I did guide his son, it was indirectly, by introducing the young man to some of the glorious poetry of the Christian world. I don’t know that he needed such guidance; he is uncommonly wise for one of his years. But it was my privilege to be the person who led him to the beauty and the wisdom of the works of Dante and Milton, of Spenser and Shakespeare.
And there was more. The father was grateful also because his son brought home with him that beauty and wisdom, and it buoyed up the good man during difficult times, when he was tempted, as he put it to me, to “pack it in.” Then he showed me a card in his wallet, of Jesus of the Sacred Heart, with the white and red rays, signs of love and mercy.
So there we sat as the ceremony proceeded. Then it came time to honor this year’s recipient of the college’s teaching award. This professor is a friendly fellow, scrupulous in his work, and well liked by students in his field. He’s also someone who has no admiration whatsoever for the humanities. He’s spent two or three decades deriding our college’s two-year course in Western Civilization. He runs it down in his classes, in the presence of students enrolled in the course. He’s been known to pick on students publicly for studying poetry, which he calls useless. His outlook is entirely secular.
I expected to wince. Instead, what I heard puzzled me. I am still trying to understand it. He congratulated the students for being part of the “most selective freshman class in the last ten years.” He congratulated them for their being what he called “engaged learners,” unlike freshmen at our school thirty years ago—many of whom, it should be noted, were present in the audience and pay his salary—who were “passive learners,” taught merely to memorize information from lectures. That last was an ill-bred and ill-informed slap at our Western Civilization course.
He concluded his short acceptance speech by declaring that he had no doubt that the honorees in attendance would make us proud. This they would do by “earning high scores on standardized tests,” or “obtaining internships and fellowships,” or “distinguishing themselves in musical or theatrical competitions,” or “winning admission to prestigious graduate schools.”
As Milton’s Belial says in Hell, “And that must end us, that must be our cure.”
I am not much puzzled by the emptiness of the secular world, its pious slogans and self-congratulatory politics (here, as it happens, politics of the left) little more than a flourish upon cold, meritocratic ruthlessness. I concede that it does still shock me when I see it up close. I imagine that it still surprises an army surgeon to see a man with no legs stilting into his office. These here are spiritual amputees. I wish they weren’t, just as the surgeon might wish that the man with the prosthetics had his own legs again.
But what does puzzle me is the utter lack of awareness. A man born blind does not know what it is to see, but he’s heard of vision and he knows that he lacks it. A man with no legs may well remember what it is like to walk. But—in my experience—the secularist does not know what he does not know.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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