Higher Education—Part 3: Is It All About the Soul?
So far we’ve concluded, following Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, that most of what we call higher education is really technical education. It’s the acquisition of indispensable skills for people in a middle-class democracy. That technical education at our brick-and-mortar colleges typically includes some “liberal education,” but that part of college education is getting smaller and somewhat vaguer or more perfunctory. That’s because we no longer know what the humanities are for, beyond sharpening basic skills in critical thinking, effective communication, and so forth. The sciences, as far as I can tell, are more confident and meritocratic than ever, the humanities more dazed and confused and so angry and suspicious of the ‘logocentrism” of meritocracy.
Tocqueville adds that identifying science with technology is basically a democratic prejudice. We tend to value science as useful for generating the power required to make us more comfortable, secure, and free from material drudgery. But the truth is that there’s also pure science or theoretical science, which can be distinguished even from experimental science. (The importance of this distinction is one reason among many I admire TV’s The Big Bang Theory—with the intellectual superiority of the theoretical Sheldon to the experimental Leonard always being displayed, although Leonard is a nicer guy with more normal human emotions.)
Tocqueville cautions democrats that if they neglect theory technological progress will eventually atrophy. We can see that, in fact, most of the best theoretical programs can be found in our country today, but a strikingly disproportionate percentage of the students and professors didn’t grow up here. We know enough to spend the money, but we’re not so good in raising and educating kids to become the most top-flight of scientists.
Tocqueville also mentions the need of any democracy for even more countercultural forms of higher education. He says those responsible for the literary life of any democracy—including ours—should study the best Greek and Roman authors in Greek and Latin. That’s not because they were better than us in every respect; even Greek and Roman philosophers were distorted by aristocratic prejudices.
But the democratic tendency is to become so skeptical of the need of the soul that the very words that correspond to those needs will be emptied of meaning or just disappear. So democratic language will become more abstract and technical, using words like input when what is really meant is opinion. Language becomes less attuned to the personal longings of the being who loves, dies, and is open to truth about all things. Metaphysics, theology, poetry, and philosophy will lose ground without constant replenishment from the influence of authors who were all about the soul.
Tocqueville makes the elitist point that this sort of “classical education” shouldn’t be for everyone in a democracy. For those stuck with middle-class, technical jobs, such an education would arouse passions for greatness that just can’t be satisfied these days. An accountant full of classical learning would be dangerously discontent. But the author, of course, can “sublimate” his discontent through literary expression.
That’s not to say that Tocqueville is so elitist that he doesn’t think we all have souls with longings. It’s just that most of us aren’t going to be responsible for those keeping those longings alive in our language. Somebody might say that the reason our popular music is so full of anger these days is that our language is so impoverished. When you can’t find the words to say what needs to be said, it’s hard to be express yourself rationally and moderately.
There’s more, of course.