The Higher Meaning Of Higher Education

After reading the recently released report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences about the sorry state of the humanities in higher education, Paula Marantz Cohen sighs:

[T]he commission’s report, with the somewhat arch title, The Heart of the Matter, is itself indicative of the problem. It is not badly written—its grammar and syntax are dutifully correct, and in places it tries to be eloquent. But it was written by a committee. It turns the ineffable into a clear-cut “knowledge base” (a horrid phrase). Consider the goals listed in the report’s introduction: “1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. These goals cannot be achieved by science alone.”

You may already be drowsing and can probably foresee the padding and platitudes to come—the stating of principles and ideas obvious to any person with common sense.

Peter Laarman likewise finds the report’s emphasis on the practical dismaying, quipping, “God help us if we think the only way to save humanities education is to corrupt it utterly by stressing the cash value—or the national security value—of brushing up our Shakespeare.” Instead, he finds the humanities’ true value to elude such calculations, and connects their study to religion:

The report fails to say anything of significance about the inexpressible joy that a traditional liberal education can ignite, the sense of belonging to the worldwide communion of persons living and dead who can/could think and ponder, the wonderment of consciousness that poets and sages of all epochs have celebrated. The report dwells instead, in a very American way, on the practical applications of a thorough grounding in the humanities and/or the social sciences.

Religion has a stake in this discussion. Religion is about the higher consciousness, after all. Second-century theological heavyweight St. Irenaeus is at least alleged to have said that God’s glory is the fully alive human being (there is a dispute about the translation). Rudimentary human consciousness makes us aware of our finitude; more advanced consciousness, usually the outcome of higher learning, makes the idea of that finitude bearable, even sublime.