Paraphrase of Fr. James Schall’s “The Obsolescence of the Colleges: On the Paperless and Placeless Institution”

Not intended to be a faithful reproduction or report of the original talk, not in the least. Fr. Schall was introduced by Dr. Susan Hanssen as one who could show others how to “think with the mind of the Church.” As will be clear below, I got something very different from his remarks. Only under point 4 have I quoted him directly, but completely out of context. I should say I enjoyed the lecture and appreciated Fr. Schall’s insight very much. When I get a link to the transcript of his actual lecture, it will be posted here.

1. Why higher education? It is alien from democracy as it may purposely create inequality. It is alien from Enlightenment as it is not always practical or even particularly glorious:

Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out. But, if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those greater lights of science, which, for more than a century, have thrown their radiance over our land!

It is, sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet there are those who love it.

Daniel Webster, “The Dartmouth College Case”

A slippery-slope argument does not defend the right to know adequately. Moreover: in what does the life of the mind truly consist? One can attempt to say man is a rational animal. Do we act rationally or even in a primal manner when we laugh? Laughter may emphasize the peculiarity of our condition. Unfortunately, not all men laugh. How exactly we can comment on the life of the mind without anything resembling adequate self-knowledge is an open question, if it is a question.

2. The medieval and modern universities have more in common than one might suppose at first glance. The medieval university was completely separated from the world. “Discretion” and “discrimination” were central to teaching and learning. There were standards which were supposedly found in being and thus should have informed who one was. If you failed to live up to the standard, that was a sign of your weakness, not the standard’s. Often your failure could be seen as a moral wrong or lack of virtue.

All of this assumes college to be central to the formation of character. It assumes that people needed to be taken away from their families and the order of the everyday and into a place where there would be truth. And the medieval university certainly claimed to have truth. The movement from “some questions are better than others” to “there are answers to be had” was immediate. One might characterize the notion there are only questions as a “great temptation,” as it seems a book read well can make one’s life better. Surely there must be answers.

The modern university is a massive, sprawling commercial enterprise. Learning can be done anywhere, at any time, in any mode. Perhaps an institution can offer courses in languages it can’t understand with instructors hired through another government about subjects it can only name. Naming itself might be all there is to education: is this not the complete opposite of the medieval university? Place and character are irrelevant. The base acquisition of wealth cannot be compared to the religious imperatives of the past.

What of time? Ay, there’s the rub. The university implies something universal. No matter what is offered, when, it is a good. The problem with this logic is that some things are emphatically not good at a given time. If one is sick before a battle and does not participate, one might have been saved. The modern university’s attempts to be timely marginalize it in the face of know-how from commercial and military life. The medieval university’s complete neglect of anything timely probably led to the end of the medieval world itself.

3. Let us work with a simplified thought of Leo Strauss: perhaps philosophy is the quest for the whole. If so, philosophy may have to engage the competing claims of reason and revelation. This is a tension inasmuch we are wondering about how we live. It may seem reason trumps all, as we finally choose who we are. No less than Socrates, though, claims he knows nothing about teaching nobility directly. Perhaps there is a divine wisdom that allows for the choice we make. At the very least, we find it worthwhile to aspire to be certain people. Not everything about that process can be rational at first.

So now we conceive of college – a place where the liberal arts are taken seriously – as simply the reading of books. Maybe those books tell the truth, but we almost immediately see that as a whole, they contradict each other. Another simplified thought of Strauss: try to substitute the history of philosophy for the study of philosophy, and it is like substituting truth for a series of brilliant errors.

4. Does the truth make sense without opinion? For the hard sciences, absolutely. But if you’re trying to find things like “meaning” or “value,” or even trying to figure out what another age found meaning in or valued, you’ll have to make do with something complicated precisely because it seems intuitive and simplistic. “The used bookstore is one of the great gifts of civilization.” The purpose of college is “not to learn something, but to wake up so we want to learn something.” “Colleges are not social laboratories:” this applies to any university at any time, whether modern or medieval. “Philosophy exists in conversation.” The test of any institution of higher learning is whether it lets people read and talk to each other, whether the leisure Aristotle considered essential for thinking exists. That’s it. Try anything else and the university becomes inhumane. The question of human being needs to be something people address honestly, in their own ways. The medieval university skipped “human being” in order to attempt to access being directly. The modern has buried the question of being completely in order to make as much money from students as possible while declaring itself non-profit. “Colleges are not necessarily obsolete, though many are.”


  1. I’m going to sound like a complete jerk- maybe I am. Universities aren’t going to stop caring about bringing in money to waste (mine keeps building fences around the dorms and then digging them back up, not to mention the “new” new new gym or the stairway to nowhere) any time soon.

    I’ll say something quickly about this being self perpetuating, students learning that profit motive is the only thing that matters and then going back to run these universities, and blah blah blah.

    And for as long as they are concerned with making money they’re going to continue to admit large numbers of people who don’t belong and who are unfortunately literally incapable of doing the kind of thinking and having the kind of discussions you’re talking about. Some degree of exclusivity and separatism and insistence that students at least subscribe to some kind of culture of learning are necessary for that. I do hope I’m just a pessimist.

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