If you’ve ever read C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, you will have an inkling (pun intended) of the philosophy that tends to dominate many of our cultural institutions. His “N.I.C.E.” (the evil “National Institute for Coordinated Experiments”) was a perfect portrayal of the technocratic mindset that has taken over higher education in particular―the idea that “useful knowledge” is the only kind of knowledge worth having. If you want a portrayal of this in poetry, try T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat comments on a new book by Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis, where the Baylor professor discusses the movement of Christian humanism at the beginning of the twentieth century that attempted an intellectual and spiritual renewal in the midst of the second devastating world war.
During his visit [to Harvard], [the poet W. H.] Auden met James Conant, then the president of Harvard and a man associated with the Apollonian transformation of the modern university, its remaking as a scientific-technical powerhouse with its old religious and humanistic purposes hollowed out. “ ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself,” Auden wrote of the encounter. “And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”
This anecdote appears near the end of [Jacob’s book] “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis.” … Auden is one of his main subjects; the others are T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil, Jacques Maritain and C.S. Lewis, a group of religious thinkers whose wartime writings Jacobs depicts as a sustained attempt, in the shadow of totalitarian ambition and liberal crisis, to offer “a deeply thoughtful, culturally rich Christianity” as the means to a postwar humanistic renewal in the West.
Jacobs also depicts their attempt as a failure, because in the end neither a Christian humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the spirit of Conant, the spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.
Christian humanism was a movement that included Lewis and Eliot―and could as well have included earlier Christian thinkers like G. K. Chesterton. Douthat is disappointed by Jacobs assessment of the movement as a failure, largely on the grounds of the corruption of the humanities in higher education.
Jacobs may be technically right in his dim diagnosis of Christian humanism, and yet there is learning that goes on outside of our universities that shouldn’t be ignored. Lewis in particular, and also increasingly Chesterton, have taken on a new life among many Christians, who have gone back to these thinkers repeatedly for wisdom and thoughtfulness.
But there is another factor that at least Douthat and possibly Jacobs have not taken into account, and that is the burgeoning classical education movement. If much of higher education is giving up on the souls of our students in favor of culturally sterile technical skills (and not even doing that very well), there is now the prospect that more students will encounter the humanities in elementary and secondary education.
If our institutions of higher learning won’t do their jobs in forming human souls, then why can’t elementary and secondary schools do it? The good news is that is increasingly happening. And, in fact, this may be the more proper place for it anyway.
Read Douthat’s article here.