Searching for Truth in the Modern Academy

“Universities have failed in modern society because of their rebellion against the sacred tradition. They have become monumental pyramids, hospices for the remains of what once was learning, now sustained by growing numbers of administrators and shrinking numbers of teachers, surviving on grants and measuring their viability by their endowments, static as the latter-day Egyptians who had seen the Old Kingdom pass.”

(Rev. George Rutler, The Seven Wonders of the World)

A frequent complaint against the modern university is that it does not attempt to teach truth to its students, and this is largely a fair complaint as far as it goes. It does not, however, go far enough.

I have had a longer stay in academia than most: as of the close of this semester—coming n the next few weeks—I will have completed as many years of post-secondary education as I did primary and secondary education. Though I will soon be changing my title from “Mr” to “Dr.”, I still at times find myself echoing a statement which a roommate of mine made when we were undergraduates together: my degree comes from this university, but not my education [1].

To be fair, the universities have done a decent enough job of training me in the technical aspects of my field, and could be fairly said to have provided an education of sorts, both in and outside of the classroom. Yet, there is something missing from my “education experience”, and from talking to a large number of students both here and at other universities have I attended or visited, something is missing from the typical program offered by most universities.

The Main Building on the campus where I have worked and studied has the words of John 8:32 carved into its facade: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Indeed. And these are words to live by, especially in the seeking of a university or other institution of “higher” learning. But, as the venerable bishop Fulton Sheen has noted, “It is easy to find Truth; it is harder to face it, and harder still to follow it.”

The university which merely presents the truth without compelling its students to then face this truth provides only part of a true education, and this the easiest and perhaps least valuable part.

Ultimately, Truth is personal, which is not to say that it is merely subjective. It must be faced, if for no other reason than that Truth has a face, and it must be followed, if for no other reason that Truth is also a way, or more accurately the Way (John 14:6).

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Truth is often simple but seldom easy, and if facing the Truth is difficult, then following it steadfastly can be outright heroic. Yet, this is precisely the response which Truth ultimately requires of us, and as many do not wish to follow the truth they choose instead to deny it.

The denial may be simple and yet personal. Saint Peter thrice denied his Lord for fear of being made to follow Him—straight to the executioner’s block; such may be repented, as when that same saint found forgiveness during the first Easter, then ultimately was lead to a similar execution. It can also become grosser, as when the denial is repeated and deliberate, a habituation which leads to a different kind of death.

In the academy, such denials have two seemingly opposite effects. The first, more noticeable one is turning a discussion into the shouts of the mob, echoes of the first mob to shout down Truth. The second often passes unmarked. It is what Fr. Rutler described as “the awful silence, haunted and not holy, that saddened Shakespeare wen the monasteries had been destroyed for being politically incorrect, and all the seasons were a withered autumn.”

There are many temptations which can distract us away from the pursuit of Truth, be they the gross temptations of hedonism, consumerism, and liberationism or the more refined and intellectual temptations of relativism, progressivism, and modernism. These temptations appeal to hearts and minds—or at least the bellies and groins—of many of people, whether students or faculty or the masses who never set foot on a college campus.

But there is one weapon of mass effect deployed against truth, which likely as gives permissions to these temptations by its denial of Truth, and worse by its indifference to Truth. This is the modern take on cynicism, as described by Fr. Rutler:

“When [Jesus] spoke of truth to Pontious Pilate, He elicited a response as constrained as that of the proto-cynic, Antisthenes, ‘What is truth?’ It is the same reaction you would get in a university today if a priest said he had a truth to proclaim. For the cynic has moved beyond disagreement about truth to denial that there is such a thing. Perhaps Pilate’s question was sad. Today it has become sarcastic. The voice in the lecture hall today says neither ‘You’re right’ nor ‘You’re wrong,’ but rather sighs, ‘Whatever.’ This is why it is difficult to engage honest debate in the academy today, for debate proposes a model of truth and defends it. Instead, the cynics developed a form of debate they called ‘Eristic’ specifically for the purpose of confusing people, and causing onlookers to laugh at those who used real logic as mere religious fanatics.”

The university arose during the medieval period, based around a particular vision of the universe, of reality, and of truth. As Professor J Budziszewski—one of those increasingly rare professors who care more about educating their students than indoctrinating them with the current fads in ideology—puts it [2]:

“Medieval students had to master seven elementary studies before going on to advanced degrees. The first three, called the trivium, were grammar, or the laws of language; rhetoric, or the laws of argument; and dialectic, or the laws of clear thought. The next four, called the quadrivium, were arithmetic, or the laws of number; geometry, or the laws of figure; music, or the laws of harmony; and astronomy, or the laws of inherent motion.

Why these seven? Because medieval universities were organized around the view that the universe makes sense, that knowledge is grasping that sense, that the mind can really grasp it, that all knowledge is related, and that all of its parts form a meaningful whole.”

The universities have abandoned this vision of reality and have, as a result, lost the one thing which makes them cohesive and coherent. They are no longer organized around anything in particular, but rather have become “queasy alliances of interest groups which have no ultimate commitments in common.”

They are more or less run by competing interest groups — money-making machines for the administrative bureaucracy, research institutes for the professors, job-training centers for the students — but not really centers for education, or even for inquiry. As such, they can only last for so long as those interest groups hold sufficient power to maintain their status.

In the meantime, at most universities—including many private ones—education is an endeavor which must be undertaken on one’s own, mostly outside of the classroom or the laboratory. To some extent this has always been the case. We must be actively involved in our own educations, or they will not take hold. However, it is sad m to see that those institutions originally founded to help us obtain an education now at times actively work to prevent this from happening.


[1] His exact words were, “I am getting my degree form OSU, but my education has come from ISI.”

[2] His blog does not yet allow linking to particular posts, so the interested reader will have to scroll down to posts 14 and 15.