This week’s topic is The Naked Public Square, Part Two: Orthodoxy and the Academy. Oh, I know. I promised you a podcast on the Pro-Life Movement. And I still intend to infuriate some of you with that podcast. But today, I want to talk about the place of Orthodoxy in the modern academy.
Recently, St. Vladimir’s hosted a conference on Orthodoxy and higher education. I did not have the opportunity to attend, but I am grateful that our friends at AFR were there to record the talks. I’ve not had a chance to listen to all of them. But I was particularly impressed and intrigued by Fr. John Behr’s opening remarks. He made some trenchant observations, and asked some very important questions. If you’ve not listened to it yet, you should.
While I have no intention of directly responding to Fr. John’s talk. This podcast, is in a way, an attempt to address, if only partially and superficially, some of the questions raised. In particular, I want to address the question of whether or not we should try and create Orthodox colleges. And if so, what sorts of colleges they should be?
Now, it seems to me that the very first thing we need to get straight is that the American educational system (I prefer to call it an archipelago. Those that have ears to hear, let them here) is an absolute disaster from top to bottom. I will go further. Higher education is today, largely a racket. Most people do not really need to go to college, and a significant percentage of the people who do go, shouldn’t be there at all.
So if by creating an Orthodox college, we mean creating a three-barred cross version of what already exists in this country, then we would be better off not even trying. It will surely fail. And if it does manage to keep its doors open, it will only be at the expense of its Orthodoxy, ethos, and praxis.
So, let’s start at the beginning. What is the purpose of education? I contend that education is subsumed by the broader imperative to hand down one’s culture from one generation to the next. Now certainly, I am not discounting the need to teach skills and such. But the overall purpose of education is to pass down an intact and working culture.
If we accept this, then it becomes clear that formal instruction is one of the least important elements of education. Who among us learned our native tongue in school? To be sure, we learned some of the formal rules of grammar in school, and I think grammar is a very important subject. But all of us came to school already speaking our native language and already functioning quite well within our linguistic community.
Thus, the primary means of learning the elements of a culture are simply to be immersed in that culture; to live it. We learn primarily through watching others and doing ourselves. Now there are, of course, some elements that do require more formal instruction. And most societies in the West, at least, have developed various schemes for such instruction. I’m not at all suggesting that formal and especially formal, higher education are unnecessary and unimportant.
However, we must place these things within the proper context. Especially, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that such education is for everyone when it manifestly is not. Historically, the move for compulsory education in this country came from two directions. On the one hand, public education was championed by social reformers, especially New Englanders, who saw it as a tool to make the rest of the nation over into the image of New England.
In this sense, public schools were indeed preoccupied with culture. But in this case, it was with a particular culture – that of New England. And the intent was not so much to pass that culture down as to impose it on otherwise unwilling populations. After the war, public education was seen as the primary tool by which rebellious Southerners would be taught to become good Americans. That is to say, carbon copies of New Englanders.
So-called conservatives today never cease to grouse about the fact that our public schools are the playgrounds of social activists, pushing various left wing agendas via the school curriculum. But these complaints completely ignore the fact that social engineering is exactly why compulsory public education was created in the first place.
Daddy’s Roommate and Heather has Two Mommies are really no different from some of the myths and stories we were all taught in school, such as the story that the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the New World – not true.
The first day of prayer and thanksgiving was celebrated in the older settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. But this has been almost totally erased from our national consciousness primarily because of what we were all taught in school; in favor of the myth that America was founded by pious, religious, nonconformists who came to New England so that they could enjoy freedom.
Again, the truth is somewhat different. Both the Virginia and the Plymouth Bay companies were just that – companies. They were for profit corporations funded by wealthy stockholders in England who expected to see a handsome return on their investments. In other words, we have been a commercial venture from the very beginning, and no amount of pious sugarcoating will change that.
This brings me to the second pillar of American public education – corporate America. Much of the funding for public education in this country initially came from corporations, either directly or through philanthropic organizations set up by the robber barons. These folks wanted a trained and educated workforce, and compulsory public education was seen as a way to accomplish that.
We must remember that industrialization and commercialization radically changed the nature of labor and therefore the nature of education. Rather than skilled crafts, which most people learned through apprenticeship, the bulk of non-farm jobs became non- and semi-skilled farm jobs along with an increased number of white collar support jobs.
Thus, the industrialists supported public education as a means of supplying themselves with a ready trained labor force. Even today, you will never hear a politician speak about public education without lamenting the fact that the schools just aren’t doing enough to prepare students for the modern economy. Whatever that means. Thus, public education and by extension the supplies to much private education and to all higher education, both public and private, exists for two primary purposes.
First to inculcate a social vision of what it means to be an American. To be an American means that we are part of a nation that was founded not on the basis of an existing Anglo-Celtic culture but upon the abstract ideals of freedom and equality – ideals that must be spread by gunpoint if necessary – to everyone here, including illegal immigrants and same-sex couples as well as to the rest of the world.
The second purpose is to train the next generation to enter the workforce, to become part of the national economy, and to increasingly become part of the global economy. So pervasive is this purpose that even universities are now little more than corporate subsidiaries. If anyone still harbors the old image of the academy as an ivory tower of pure research and disinterested intellectual inquiry, you need to let it go.
Almost all of the research in American universities is controlled by corporations, either directly through partnerships and grants or indirectly through their wholly-owned proxy, the federal government. Now I know I’m going to get an inbox of angry letters from public school teachers out there. I’ve received them before.
I’m not saying that all public school teachers or administrators are the minions of Satan. I’m sure there are some very good ones like your mother or cousin. I’m sure there are some rural school districts out there that still have school prayer and have yet to get the memo about teaching inclusiveness and multi-cultural feel goodness.
But none of that changes the reasons why public education was made compulsory in the first place or how it operates in the main today. Nor does it change the fact that these purposes are largely incompatible with an Orthodox way of life. As Orthodox Christians, our primary concern should not be with getting a job or even having a career but with fulfilling our vocation; our calling as parents, neighbors, citizens, and most importantly as children of God.
We should not be concerned with the global economy, which at any rate is headed for a train wreck, but about our household economy. That is to say, the ways which we earn and eat our daily bread are integrated into the totality of our domestic relations and into our relationship with God. I am absolutely confident that getting a B.A. or a B.S., much less an M.B.A., will do little to improve that integration.
If we were to have a real Orthodox college in North America and not simply a secular college with an Orthodox veneer, it will need to be on a working farm somewhere, at least an hour from a city with any size. It would need to be segregated by gender, and it would be as much a finishing school for ladies and gentlemen as a conventional college.
Students would be required to master Classical Greek and would read, insofar as possible, the primary texts that have defined the development of Western culture. Students would also be required to work on the farm and learn the basics of agriculture and home economy firsthand. Needless to say, the year would be organized according to the natural seasons in the Liturgical Calendar.
Finally, this college would have absolutely nothing to do with either federal or state governments and that means not participating in any guaranteed loan or grant programs. I’m perfectly aware however that in addition to be extremely expensive to start, such a college simply would not appeal to the majority of Orthodox parents or their children. This in and of itself is not really a problem as higher education is supposed to be for the select few, not the masses.
But it does mean that for most Orthodox parents and students, it would be a far more effective use of our limited financial resources to beef up existing programs like OCF. In areas where there is a sizable Orthodox concentration, churches could go in together to buy a small apartment building or several adjacent houses and create a residential center for Orthodox students.
In larger cities, one such center could house students from different colleges. If there are Orthodox faculty members at these universities, arrangements could probably be made to offer some onsite courses taught by those professors for college credit. And of course, a residential center would offer the possibility of a fuller liturgical life for the students.
OCF residential centers would do nothing to change the nature of American higher education. But they would at least offer an alternative to the current college experience, which as far as I can tell consists primarily of binge drinking and trying to hump anything that moves interspersed occasionally by forays into classrooms where cultural Marxists hold sway. If I sound pessimistic, it’s because I am.
But there are things we can do to help our students, even if we are not willing to secede completely from this corrupt and doomed social order. As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle, however small, than to simply curse the darkness. Of course, if you happen to have a spare $20 million sitting around and you want to talk to me about starting a real Orthodox college, drop me a line.
I want to conclude with a few lines from Psalm 77. This is from David James’ adaptation of the Coverdale Psalter called A Psalter for Prayer. I’ve mentioned this before and am pleased to say that it is now available from Holy Trinity Publications at Jordanville. You all need to buy a copy. Psalm 77 begins:
Heed my law, O my people; incline your ears unto the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables; I will declare hard sayings of old; which we have heard and known; and our fathers have told us. They were not hidden from their children in another generation, declaring the praises of the Lord at his mighty deeds and the wonderful work that he had done. He made a covenant with Jacob and gave Israel a law, which he commanded to our fathers to teach their children; that another generation might know it; children as yet unborn. And they shall grow up and show their children the same; that they might put their trust in God and not forget the works of God but search after his commandments.
Now that is the Orthodox Christian understanding of education. And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, whose Kingdom shall have no end, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, of the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov, and of all the Saints have mercy on us all and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.