The Lost Purpose of Learning

The Lost Purpose of Learning, by Joseph Clair.

In the autumn of AD 386, a thirty-two-year-old academic superstar named Aurelius Augustinus made a radical move: He resigned his position as imperial professor of rhetoric in Milan and retired early. The position, as prestigious as an endowed chair of government at Harvard today, represented the pinnacle of intellectual achievement in its time. Yet Augustine was disillusioned, tired of teaching “résumé virtues” to “excellent sheep.” He complained that liberal education in the later Roman Empire had become purposeless and disoriented, preoccupied with the ephemeral aims of career, wealth, and fame. Intellectual and spiritual vitality had vanished from lecture rooms and pupils alike. The soul of education was dead. …

We are right to bemoan in Augustinian fashion the fact that higher education today, as widely reported, is thoroughly and singularly oriented toward economic goods. The very idea of learning for a moral or spiritual purpose appears bizarre—or worse, quaint. But it’s also worth asking what happens when even the economic value of college is cast into doubt. …

The four-year journey to college is a cultural tradition deeply embedded in the American psyche. But has it become an empty routine? A mere going through the motions? …

Student debt is spiking. The economy is dragging because of it. What’s the point of taking loans for courses that are available for free online?

A recent Pew survey reveals that 58 percent of Republicans (or Republican-leaning people) believe colleges and universities are actually having a negative effect on the way things are going in our country (with 36 percent saying they have a positive impact). That’s a dramatic shift from two years ago, when those two numbers were reversed. …

As one prospective parent recently told me on a visit to our campus: “Listen, I’m not going to pay for my kid to go and find himself for four years.”

The weakest links in college life today are the same as those in Augustine’s day. We lack a sense of the integral nature of knowledge (the work of “general education” or a “core curriculum”) and the moral and spiritual formation that rightly accompany intellectual labor and professional preparation. Though these two elements — integration and formation — are the most costly parts of college life, they are also the only reasons not to reduce the spendy, four-year residential model to a two-year, web-based, vocation-focused, trade-school model of higher education.

hat-tip Stephen Neil