Radnor Township, PA

This past Friday, I led a lunch discussion with students at the University of Chicago who had read my First Things article  “Majoring in Fear.” They verified that things at Chicago were pretty much as I had described.

One thing that surprised me to hear is that students receive career counseling from the beginning of their first year of study (which as far as I know was not the case when I taught undergrads there in the late 1990s). Not only does this continually reinforce anxiety about the student’s future, but seems also to explicitly communicate the mostly implicit dogma of elite university education: that you will be a failure if you don’t follow as prestigious a career as you can. One first year student told me he thought he would like to major in history and teach high school, but that his counselor had made it clear that this was aiming too low for someone with a Chicago degree. Forget vocation; be a super-achiever.

Students further along the process also recognize that some of this pressure for high-achieving is a way of cultivating their potential as future donors. One has to wonder whether this obvious instrumentalization of students is the best way to cultivate alumni affection. But then it is only the complement to the universities’ instrumentalization of themselves as factories for successful job competitors.

All of this confirmed a realization that had occurred to me when preparing my short remarks for the lunch meeting: Students, when they enter the system of higher education or early in their experience of it, learn to distrust the system that is shaping them. Very likely this distrust has been taking shape during high school, consciously or not. This is a dimension of the appeal of The Hunger Games that had not entered my thoughts when I wrote about it in my article. The young people being trained for meaningless competition don’t know whether they can trust any of the adults mentoring them, whose motives are tainted by the underlying moral squalor of the whole system.

This question of trust entered my mind when I was formulating remarks to the effect that higher education, meeting students when they are in their prime for asking questions, needs to be about helping them to formulate and pursue those questions – and that there is a natural and intelligible order to those questions. The example I used for illustrating an education of ordered questioning was the structure of the medieval university. Medieval university education began with philosophy, teaching students how to question and bringing them to encounter the basic questions that orient comprehensive inquiry. From there, students went on to reflect upon the natural world and the human place within it (Physick or Medicine), the world of human social and political relations (Jurisprudence or Law), and the ultimate orienting principle of human and natural existence, God (Sacred Doctrine or Theology). This education provided an orderly march through the ordering questions of all major areas of knowledge. (In our own way, Villanova’s Humanities Department has replicated this structure.)

But of course this ordering and its rationale arose from a tradition of theological reflection and Christian doctrine. Students, who are never in a good position to judge an education before entering into it and being opened up and transformed by it, had to have trust in the system in order to submit themselves to its orderly program. They generally did have this trust, because they trusted the tradition that provided that order; and they had sufficient acquaintance with the ordering principles of that tradition (through a basic preparatory liberal education, Biblical knowledge and the lives of saints) to have some idea what governed the system they were submitting themselves to.

Students today have no such basic sense of what principles order the education they are planning to submit themselves to – unless they are students entering institutions affiliated with their religious traditions (and often not even then), or at a place like St. John’s College, which is quite explicit about its non-utilitarian educational rationale. The only generally available rationale is the pursuit of power and money; and the humanities and social science disciplines their minds are formed by often teach them that this is what all human pursuits aim at (a message implicit as well in the technologically justified and patent-securing natural sciences and engineering).

It so happened that some of the students had, on the previous evening, attended a talk on campus by William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I read to the students a short passage in which Deresiewicz admits that, although he is not religious, he finds himself resorting to religious language as the only adequate description of the kind of transformation a real education should bring about:

“We might propose, then, that you should arrive at college as at the beginning of a pilgrimage—a movement toward the truth and toward the self. That you should come to seek conversion, though you know not yet to what belief or way. That you should approach ideas as instruments of salvation, driven by a need to work things through for yourself, so that you won’t be damned to go through life at second hand, thinking other people’s thoughts and dreaming other people’s dreams. … We are born once…. But then if we are granted such grace, we are born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his mortal soul?”

As these adaptations of Biblical and Christian categories indicate, Deresiewicz’s “Way to a Meaningful Life” is the way of Emerson and Thoreau, the vision that animated the New England liberal arts colleges that established the ideal of “finding yourself” and “discovering your own truth” as the alternative in America to traditional religious education or sheer utilitarian pragmatism. This Transcendentalism may be the biggest cultural swindle in history.

Why so? Because the very notion that makes the medieval founding of the university institution possible is the notion of the dignity of the human person as oriented toward God, not only “with all your heart and all your soul,” but also “all your mind.” In other words, as I have discussed in a previous post, the Christian understanding of the human is that of a person capable of communion with the personhood of God, the Creator of the order that the human person can seek to understand. The religious categories Deresiewicz invokes are the categories of personhood articulated by the Christian tradition, categories constitutive of the original understanding of the person served by the university. Transcendentalism is the attempt to preserve this notion of personhood grounded in a vocation to the ultimate, while turning this ultimate into an impersonal Transcendent. By straining with all my might toward this Transcendent I will rise above conformist mediocrity and create myself as a unique self.

In short, this Transcendentalist individualism (the go-to position for American humanists like Deresiewicz and Andrew Delbanco), according to which I only trust myself (and Emerson and his Absolute, or Whitman and Divine Democracy), is a delusional attempt to preserve a sense of communion with something beyond myself while insuring that the demands it makes upon me only come from myself and my aspiration for self-elevation.
This, then, seems to be the civilizational story in which the current crisis of university education must be understood. The university is finally losing decisively its character as an institution designed to serve and cultivate the dignity of the human person, a character inhering in its Christian origins. It is becoming a pagan institution. Paganism does not recognize persons oriented to the Creator, but only a world of powers. Students are being asked to make the bargain of pagan idolatry: Pay obeisance and service to a greater power so as to partake in a share of its power. The university views students in pagan terms, as loci of the concentration and channeling of powers at large in the world. As it drifts in this direction, the university becomes more inhuman and dehumanizing. Finding no home for their personhood in the university, students fabricate a simulacrum of it on their own time through their semi-private virtual world of communication and entertainment technology.

The Transcendentalist fantasy, as Deresiewicz suggests, seeks to provide a sense of vocation. But a vocation is a call, and the Transcendentalist can only hear the call that comes from himself. In the end, Transcendentalism is just a more poetic and bombastic libertarianism, and generally goes against the taste of our more cynical and prosaic youth, who would rather take their libertarianism straight up from Ayn Rand (subsidized by the Koch Foundation). If the university as a place to cultivate the dignity of personhood and discern one’s vocation is to survive, it will have to be preserved by Christian and Jewish institutions who know what they’re up against and have the vision and courage to resist the tide of paganization.


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Mark Shiffman was born in north Florida to the son of expatriated New York secular Jews and the daughter of small town, pillar of the community southern Presbyterians. After spending much of his childhood in Alaska and California, he discovered in his Tennessee adolescence, first reluctantly and then gratefully, that more than half his heart belonged to the South. He occasionally rediscovers this viscerally when his body descends below the Mason-Dixon line from his northern exile in Philadelphia, where he has also brought his wife into exile from her lifelong home of Chicago. They live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia with their two sons, having moved from one of the more successfully racially integrated neighborhoods in America (Hyde Park) to one of the most. Mark received his education from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and the surrounding mountains and trees, St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Santa Fe desert, Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia and the woods around Crum Creek, the University of Chicago and the icy prairie winds, and the Catholic Worker House and grimy streets of New York City. He is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions and affiliate faculty member in Classical Studies at Villanova University. He has also taught at Brooklyn College, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His current projects include books on the political philosophy of Plutarch and on the meaning of modern individualism, as well as a translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Focus Press).


  1. This is a brilliant and cogent analysis of an anthropology and ideational paradigm that is at the root not only of elite American universities, but virtually all of American and increasingly global institutions, including business corporations, governments, militaries, think tanks, so-called philanthropic foundations and others that shape and direct our societies.

    This from the piece goes right to point:

    “In short, this Transcendentalist individualism (the go-to position for American
    humanists like Deresiewicz and Andrew Delbanco), according to which I only trust myself (and Emerson and his Absolute, or Whitman and Divine Democracy), is a delusional attempt to preserve a sense of communion with something beyond myself while insuring that the demands it makes upon me only come from myself and my aspiration for self-elevation.”

    We can only experience “communion” with persons, who are wholly other from me, both in the persons of God and with one another to the extent that we live and act in that unfolding dynamism so beautifully articulated in Buber’s “I-Thou” formulation. Both the transcendentalist and instrumentalist modes, are form of contemporary gnosticism, each in its own way (Deresiewicz’s “That you should approach ideas as instruments of salvation….”) and thereby preclude the possibility of giving over to the Source of all truth that is beyond our ultimate comprehension and invention. Even though some of these inventions may beautifully express contain of this truth, we are saved in how we be and do in personal relationships. So when or if I look to find salvation through various “spiritual” dispositions, I preclude relating to/being reciprocally related by the Thou of God and fellow beings. To that extent I prevent myself from ever acting and becoming myself as an “I” uniquely created in the image and likeness of God.

    While I have academic degrees, I have not spent a lot of time and energy or been greatly shaped in my thoughts and/or faith in colleges and universities, elite or otherwise. However it does seem appropriate that someone like Dr, Shifman,who has been and still is deeply immersed in that milieu, venture into the mouth of the beast like the U. of Chicago to speak this truth. Whichever human institutions we participate in and seek to find communion with other persons and thereby with the personhood of God (and vice versa), we need to be alert to this seductive and insidious trap of “achieving salvation” through ideas. That can only happen to the extent we are given to the personhood of the One who sustains us by total giving of Body in love.

  2. This article does a wonderful job highlighting the difference between the medieval and modern university. I read “Majoring in Fear” and thought it was also an accurate and clear analysis.

    My question: is our moral impoverishment really traceable to a pagan mentality or is it something new? For instance, the pagans never pursued or tried to make “their own truth”; that is, the best of them sought THE truth. I think you are right to point out the way in which Transcendentalism is a shallow replacement for Christianity. But I think it is uncharitable, and frankly false to characterize it as pagan. The problem in the university now seems to me to be a MODERN problem. And it’s probably right to say that it is a loss of a Christian foundation or orientation towards God, but to be redundant, it does not look like a return to paganism.

  3. Richard: Thanks for your thoughts on this. I was thinking specifically of pagan idolatrous religion, not pagan philosophy, which would open another line of argument but one that has less relevance to the present state of the university. And yes, the problem is a modern one, largely the reign of a neo-Gnostic and technocratic spirit. But what the dynamic of that problem is driving the university toward is something very like the pagan religious view of the world, even if on the surface it looks very different.

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