Drop the Façade

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

If
Loyola
University of Chicago drops its classics department
, as it plans
to, it should also drop its façade as a university. It will
have become instead a technical college. There's nothing necessarily
wrong with that, but it's not a university and shouldn't call itself
one.

At
first glance it might appear that market forces are responsible
for the impending demise of classics at Loyola. By dumping classics
Loyola will can get rid of several tenure-track professors, and
will not lose very many tuition-paying students. Classics is a small
department that doesn't attract students who come to college primarily
as preparation for a job in corporate America. And few classics
alumni go on to become the kind of wealthy donors that university
bureaucrats covet. Classics, the study of Greek and Latin, is not
profitable either for the university or its students, and therefore
what purpose does it serve?

Of
course there's more to the story than market forces. The very nature
of higher education in America has changed irrevocably because of
government intervention. Student loans and financial aid programs
have distorted the market, making it possible for everyone to attend
college. So everyone now does. What could be wrong with that? Only
that most people do not want to live lives of scholarship, they
want to make ends meet. That was never the purpose for which universities
were instituted. The very word "scholarship" derives from
the Greek word for leisure, "schole." You became a scholar
if you already had the means to support yourself (or be supported
by an institution like the Church) and could therefore devote yourself
to the contemplative life.

It
should not be offensive to say the obvious, which is that the contemplative
life is not for everyone. Unfortunately the State and the leveling
ideology that grows alongside it have convinced too many Americans
otherwise. At least, they've convinced Americans that everyone needs
– or is even entitled to – a university education. And
as always leveling has been achieved not by raising anyone up, but
by bringing everyone down, starting with the most refined. Classics,
as the least "working class" (or "marketable")
of all disciplines, is naturally one of the first to go.

The
greatest diagnostician of the American character, Alexis de Tocqueville,
saw the need for classical education in America and also knew that
it would be a pursuit of the few not the many. In the second volume
of his Democracy
in America
he wrote:

"It
is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals
as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education
of the greater number should be scientific, commercial and industrial
rather than literary. Greek and Latin should not be taught in all
the schools; but it is important that those who, by their natural
disposition or their fortune, are destined to cultivate letters
or prepared to relish them should find schools where a complete
knowledge of ancient literature may be acquired and where the true
scholar may be formed."

The
real value of classical education in the American republic is beyond
even what the passage above indicates. Taken in the context of Democracy
in America as a whole it's clear that one use of classics is
as an antidote to the tyranny of the majority over opinion. In a
democracy public opinion tends to impress itself on the private
mind, and what is not popular is often literally unthinkable. Classical
literature, especially classical history and philosophy, provides
the theory and precedent for alternative ways of thinking. Significantly,
classics provides an alternative but one which is also part of our
heritage, rather than one completely alien and incommensurable to
us.

Classics
as a discipline is in no danger. As long as Western civilization
survives, and as long as anyone wishes to read the New Testament
in the language in which it was written, Latin and Greek will live.
On the other hand, if the influence of leveling ideology and the
State continues to grow, then other universities may soon follow
in Loyola's footsteps. And if that happens, not only can the technical
schools drop the faade of being universities, but we as a culture
will have to drop the faade of civilization.

March
17, 2001

Daniel
McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University
in St. Louis.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts