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The War of the Three Humanisms: Irving Babbitt and the Recovery of Classical Learning

Summer 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 3

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

ROBERT C. KOONS is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Paradoxes of Belief and Strategic Rationality, which won the Aarlt Prize.

Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) is not muchremembered today, except perhapsthrough Sinclair Lewis's snarky naming ofthe eponymous villain of the satire of mid-American manners and mores, Babbitt,after the Harvard professor whose anti-Progressive views Lewis denounced in hisNobel Prize acceptance speech. In fact,Irving Babbitt was far from the hideboundand fearful philistine Arthur Babbitt inLewis's novel. For forty years a professor ofFrench and comparative literature at Harvard,Babbitt was the teacher and friendof T. S. Eliot and, with Paul Elmer More,the proponent of a cultural and intellectualmovement, the New Humanism, thatheld center-stage in American intellectuallife in mid-century. His first book, withthe misleadingly modest title, Literature andthe American College,1 is one of the ten mostimportant and influential cultural critiqueswritten by an American in the last century,comparable to Richard Weaver's Ideas haveConsequences or Russell Kirk's The ConservativeMind.2 In addition, Babbitt's book isthe most profound reflection on the natureof higher learning written in the last onehundred years, comparable to Newman'sThe Idea of a University,3 or, indeed, Quintillian'sOn the Education of the Orator orIsocrates' Antidosis.

Babbitt's genius superimposed upon the"blooming, buzzing and blurring confusion"of cultural controversies in theearly twentieth century (Literature and theAmerican College was published in 1908)a tripartite framework of thought that isas illuminating today as it was one hundredyears ago. Babbitt begins in properSocratic fashion with a search for a definition,in this case, of the words "humanism"and "humanist." He discovers threedistinct, and indeed profoundly antago-nistic, types of humanism. The first, scientific humanism, is typified by FrancisBacon; the second, sentimental humanism,by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and thethird, classical humanism, by a successionof thinkers, including Plato, Cicero, Castiglione,Sidney, Goethe, Burke, Emerson,Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman,and Babbitt himself. Babbitt recommendsreserving the word "humanism" for thethird tradition, preferring to use the word"humanitarianism" to refer to the first twoviewpoints.

The recognition of a conflict betweenscientific utilitarianism and romantic andaesthetic sentimentalism is a commonplaceof modern thought over the last two hundredyears, verging on a cliché (as in C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures). Babbitt discernsbeneath this superficial opposition adeeper, unholy alliance between the twoforms of humanitarianism, in a perpetualwar against the very survival of humanelearning and the classical tradition. Babbittgrasped a profoundly important fact,one first adumbrated in Plato's Republic: tounderstand any cultural conflict, one mustlook first to the design of the curriculum.The most essential act of any culture orcivilization is the education of its own children.Any profound change in the characterof a civilization will, therefore, expressitself most clearly in a reform of whoteaches what to whom and how. All othersocial and political practices, whether thescope of civil liberties, the worship of godsor ideals, or the distribution of benefits andburdens, are merely the epiphenomena ofthe cultural ethos created by education.

The liberal arts curriculum of America'sliberal arts colleges in the nineteenthcentury was the fruit of twenty-five hundredyears of maturation and development,beginning with the ancient schoolsof Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and the Stoics,and continuing with the Romans Cicero,Quintilian, Martianus Capella, Boethius,and Cassiodorus, revived in the early MiddleAges by Isidore of Seville and JohnScotus Eriugena, and institutionalized bythe anonymous founders of the Europeanmedieval universities in the twelfth century.Higher learning from late antiquityuntil the twentieth century was organizedby the seven liberal arts as foundation—the trivium of grammar, logic, andrhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic,geometry, astronomy, and music (includingdrama, poetry, and history, as well as"music" in the modern sense)—with philosophyand theology as the capstones. Thegoal was essentially an ethical one: the formationof the virtues of self-control andprudence. The method was the readingand emulation of a relatively fixed canonof literary classics, works that "embody theseasoned and matured experience of man,extending over a considerable time." "Byinnumerable experiments, the world winnowsout the more essential from the lessessential."4

The ideal constitution of the ancientand medieval worlds, from Plato's Lawsand Aristotle's Politics through Cicero'sCommonwealth, Polybius's The Histories,and St. Thomas's Summa Theologica (1–2.105. 1), was a "mixed" constitution, anorder that synthesized elements of bothdemocracy (equality and freedom) andaristocracy (selectivity and restraint). Theclassical model reflected this concern for abalance, and early generations of Americanseagerly supported the liberal arts college,with its classical curriculum, as providingessential ballast to the leveling and libertinetendencies of a purely democraticsociety. The college was to form the country's"natural aristocracy," as Jefferson putit. Babbitt notes, "The final test of democracy,according to de Tocqueville, will beits power to produce and encourage thesuperior individual."5

However, this classical tradition facedincreasing opposition throughout thenineteenth century—from the utilitarianfollowers of Bentham, the scientistic disciplesof Herbert Spencer, the pragmaticpressures of American big business andexpansive national government, the quasiscientific specialization of the Germanresearch university model, as well as thenationalistic and individualistic romanticismof Rousseau, Herder, Wordsworth,and Whitman.

The Rise of Scientific
Humanitarianism: Sir Francis Bacon

Babbitt identifies the works of Sir FrancisBacon (1561–1626) as the brow fromwhich springs the first great modern challengeto the classical synthesis: scientifichumanitarianism. Bacon was not himselfa scientist of any significance, but he wasthe first great promoter, organizer, andpropagandist for Science as a perpetualinstitution. Bacon urged that the prioritiesof scientific research be revised, replacingthe desire for a quasi-spiritual contemplationof the essences and intrinsic purposesof things with an unbridled quest for theacquisition of technical power over nature.Bacon urged that, through systematicexperimentation Nature be "put to therack" and forced to reveal her secrets. Herecommended that any thought about thefinal ends or purposes of natural things(teleology) be relegated to theology;instead, men should impose their ownwills upon the raw material of nature bybetter understanding the isolated propensitiesof the elements and particles makingup material things. "Knowledge is power,"Bacon declaims.

Bacon served as Lord Chancellor underJames I but was forced out of office andconvicted of bribery. Nonetheless, his ideasremained influential, inspiring the creationof the Royal Society. As Babbitt notes,Thomas Babington Macaulay, the BritishWhig politician of the mid-nineteenthcentury, spends the first half of his biographyof Bacon on how mean a man Baconwas and the second half on how gloriousthe Baconian idea of scientific progressis. Babbitt argues that the moral vacuumwithin Bacon has exactly the same sourceas his ideas: "By seeking to gain dominionover things, he lost dominion over himself."6

Bacon's zeal for a single-minded pursuitof technical prowess initiated what MaxWeber called "the disenchantment of theworld," including, ultimately, the disenchantmentof man himself. The habit ofanalytic reductionism, so fruitful in physicsand chemistry, was quickly transferredto the understanding of man and society,resulting in "positive" or value-freesocial sciences and arid philology. Onceteleology was kicked out of the domainof human reason and restricted to that offaith, the scientistic mind could no longerdistinguish between those healthy inclinationsproper to human nature and diseasedor disordered impulses. Reason became,as David Hume put it, the "slave of thepassions," a mere instrument for scratchingwhatever itches. As a consequence,the goal of education was reduced to theacquisition of scientifically grounded technique,with the ethical dimension left tochurch, home, athletics, and other extracurricularactivities and pastimes, or (mostoften) chance.

Babbitt accurately predicts the infectionof the humanities themselves by physicsenvy. Scientism and over-specializationhave taken hold within the study of literatureand history:

Man himself and the product of hisspirit, language and literature, aretreated not as having a law of theirown, but as things entirely subject tothe same methods that have won forscience such triumphs over phenomenalnature.7

Babbitt insisted that comparative andhistorical studies "must be subordinated tohumane standards" and "reinforced by asense of absolute values." 8 In contrast, the"scientific" historian subjects man to "thelaw for things."9 Ironically, the triumphof "naturalism" in humane studies resultsin the denaturing of man, the neglect ofthe peculiar "law for man." In place of thepursuit of wisdom and the elucidation ofmeaning, the modern "social scientist" usesquantitative methods to analyze humanbehavior, as though humans were no morethan sacks of chemicals endlessly seekingthermodynamic equilibrium, and themodern "humanist" studies texts as meresecretions of the nervous system, productsof a Darwinian struggle for power.

Writing in 1908 with remarkable foresight,before the ascendancy of pseudoscientific fanaticism, Babbitt argues that theGerman educational model demonstratesthat it is "easier to be scientific or erudite orenthusiastic than civilized."10

Babbitt also notes that in Bacon we seethe appearance of a libido sciendi, an unbridledlust for encyclopedic knowledge, inplace of the classical quest for sophia—wisdom—conceived of as a finite, balanced,integrated and harmonious whole, attainableby individual human beings in eachgeneration. The universal and encyclopedicknowledge sought by Bacon and hisdisciples (like Diderot and d'Alembert),in contrast, exceeds the capacities of anyone man or any single generation. It isinstead an infinite, unbounded aspirationto be carried out by a vast and immortalbody of men, namely, Science (now thename of a concrete social institution, andno longer merely the abstract word forknowledge). The educational counterpart ofthis infinite process of limitless progress is"science (Wissenschaft) as a vocation" (MaxWeber): the lifelong devotion of the specialistto the contribution of some "original"research to the ever-growing treasuryof knowledge, a treasury so vast as tobe far beyond the comprehension of anyindividual. From this perspective, generaleducation is merely a preamble to the inevitablespecialization of the true intellectual,designed merely to provide the would-bespecialist with those few tools of language,logic, and mathematics that are of generalusefulness.

Sentimental Humanitarianism:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The second fountainhead of modernityerupts from the works of Jean-JacquesRousseau (1712–78), the Swiss philosopherand essayist, whose influence simply cannotbe overestimated. Babbitt quotes JulesLemaître as reporting a feeling of "sacredhorror" at the extent of that influence.11As the father of modern romanticism,primitivism, sentimentalism, and aestheticism,Rousseau gives, at first glance, theimpression of being the polar opposite ofthe pragmatic, rational, and utilitarianBacon. Indeed, there are many instances ofconflict between the two tendencies, fromtensions between Victorian industrialistsand the Pre-Raphaelite Arts and Craftsmovement to conflict between DefenseDepartment technocrats and folk-singinghippies over the Vietnam War. Nonetheless,the superficial tensions between the"two cultures" of scientific pragmatismand romantic individualism merely disguisetheir more fundamental affinities.Both are united in their rejection of theteleologically ordered cosmos of the classicaltradition, with its finite and universalgoal of happiness-through-self-restraint(eudaemonia). In its place, the moderns substitutethe unbounded pursuit of infiniteprogress, both through the attainment ofever-greater technical power over nature(including human nature), and through theever-novel exercise of fantasy and the idyllicimagination and the ever-freer indulgenceof whim and spontaneous impulse.

Both Bacon and Rousseau were "menof weak and in some respects contemptiblecharacter."12 Rousseau consigned eachof his five babies to the public crèche andcertain death, over the desperate protestsof his common-law wife. Babbitt insiststhat we cannot ignore these biographicalfacts when evaluating the philosophicalmovements the two men launched, sincethe immorality of the two founders is perfectlyreflected in the amoralism of theirphilosophies.

Babbitt is writing near the end of theterm of Harvard President Charles WilliamEliot (president from 1869–1909).Eliot revolutionized higher education, notonly at Harvard, but also throughout thecountry, by replacing the set curriculumwith the elective system. Babbitt quotesEliot, expressing the Rousseauist cult ofindividuality:

A well-instructed youth of eighteencan select for himself a better courseof study than any college faculty,or any wise man. . . . Every youthof eighteen is an infinitely complexorganization, the duplicate of whichneither does nor ever will exist.13

Babbitt sardonically comments, "Thewisdom of all the ages is to be as naughtcompared with the inclination of a sophomore."

Eliot recognized the incongruity ofcondemning Rousseau the man whileuncritically embracing Rousseau's ideal ofuntrammeled spontaneity: Rousseau wasan "execrable wretch," yet at the same timea glorious apostle of liberty. Eliot arguedthat Rousseau's contributions to philosophyoutweigh his personal flaws: "Verilyto have served liberty will cover a multitudeof sins." Babbitt, in contrast, arguedthat Rousseau's personal immorality is thekey that unlocks the true meaning of hisphilosophy: "Instead of the still small voicethat is heard in solitude and urges to selfdiscipline,virtue is to become a form ofenthusiasm . . ."14

Babbitt calls Rousseau a "moral impressionist,"one who, like the ancient sophists,sought to rest virtue "on the shiftingquicksands of sensibility."15 As Babbittcorrectly noted, Rousseau's philosophydeveloped from the moral sentimentalismof Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, which wascarried forward by David Hume and AdamSmith.16 In the classical tradition foundedby Socrates and dominant in the Westernworld until the eighteenth century, ethicalwisdom is a form of knowledge—notabene the presence of the root "science" inthe word "conscience"—grounded in ourexercise of reasoning intelligence. Throughthe proper understanding of our naturalend or telos (the "law for man"), the practicalintellect is able to judge and weigh thevarious and conflicting desires, feelings, andinclinations of the human heart, bringingthem into a rational order, subordinated tothe cosmic order reflected in human nature.

In contrast, the moral sentimentalist seesmoral principle as merely the superstitiousreification of human feeling, especially thefeeling of pity or compassion. Ethics thuslies forever beyond the bounds of rationalityand scientific understanding: a realm of"values" and not of "facts." As Babbitt putsit, "Rousseau confounds the law for manwith his own temperament."17

The moral sentimentalists, includingHume, maintained the hope that the hardwiringof human emotion was sufficientlyuniversal across the species that the fictionof a kind of "quasi-truth" in ethicscould be sustained, mimicking the conclusionsof classical moral wisdom. Rousseausaw that old wineskins cannot contain thenew wine: morality must be reconstructedalong new, sentimentalist lines, resultingin a "transvaluation of all values" (to useNietzsche's phrase). As Babbitt noted, theethics of restraint, including the restraintsembodied in the classical virtues of justice,wisdom, courage and temperance, isto be replaced by an ethics of enthusiasm,in which careful attention to one's finiteduties to one's neighbor and loyalty toone's concrete communities is supplantedby a boundless philanthropy. Babbitt correctlyforesaw that such amoral humanitarianismwould be catastrophic. There isa direct and unmistakable line from Rousseau'slove for humanity to the ovens ofAuschwitz, the work camps of the Gulag,and the killing fields of Cambodia, allof which were justified by an irrationalenthusiasm for a fantasized future.

Babbitt brilliantly diagnoses the spiritualroots of modern amoralism: theRousseauist philosophy reflects a spiritualindolence. In his letters, Rousseau himselfadmitted an inveterate laziness. Moralsentimentalism is the product of a kind ofspiritual and intellectual sloth, the deliberateavoidance of the hard work of shapingone's character and acquiring true wisdomand sound judgment. This spiritual acediais compatible with a frenetic activity: "Aman may be a prodigy of energy and yetspiritually indolent."18

Eliot's elective system is the perfect curricularembodiment of Rousseau's philosophy,in which the student is "compelled tobe free" by being denied the opportunityto undertake a coherent and well-orderedcourse of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseauis essentially the resurrection of theancient Greek Sophists. In fact, Plato, inhis Republic, describes Rousseau propheticallyin his depiction of the democraticpersonality. A perfect equality rules thedemocratic soul: each impulse and whimclaims equal right to the individual's timeand energy.

Translated into education, the resultis what Babbitt calls "the democracy ofstudies." The modern university is a merecafeteria of courses, with no structure orprinciple of selection. Plato also predictedthis outcome in his Laws (819A): "encyclopedicsmattering and miscellaneous experiment."As Babbitt observes, a bachelor'sdegree now "means merely that a manhas expended a certain number of unitsof intellectual energy on a list of electivestudies that may range from boiler-makingto Bulgarian . . . a question of intellectualvolts and amperes and ohms."19

Although the elective system promisedgreater autonomy for the student, inpractice it has become the worst kind oftyranny. If there are no courses that studentsare required to take, then there areno courses that professors are required toteach. It is individual professors, not individualstudents, who decide what coursesshall be offered. Both training and selfinterestdrive professors to offer narrowcourses that transmit to a captive audiencethe results of the professors' own specializedresearch. In place of the spaciousvision offered by the Grand Canyon of theclassical curriculum, the elective systemdrops students down a succession of scatteredoil wells.

The academic "major," outside of engineeringand the hard sciences, deprivesstudents of the opportunity of taking eventwo-or three-course sequences. Instead,students are offered a single, superficial"introduction" to the subject, followed bya random miscellany of electives, taughtby academic drones who have spent theircareers learning more and more about lessand less. The whole is inevitably much lessthan the sum of its parts.

The Common Ground of Modernity

The examination of the new college curriculumbrings to light the underlyingcommonality between scientific and sentimentalhumanitarianism. In practice, bothforward a course of studies that privilegesthe quantity of information absorbed overany selection based on natural quality.Both conceive of the college as an engineof social progress, ignoring the vitallyimportant task of the "assimilation andperpetuation of culture."20 Both deny theexistence of a natural end or telos of man,the conception of a finite, bounded, andbalanced fulfillment of human nature,rationally intelligible and fixed. Bothreduce the scope of knowledge to whatcan be secured by the methods of physicalscience, with the capacity to control andmanipulate as its acid test. Both hold thewisdom of the past in contempt, replacingpiety toward our forebears with a chronologicalnarcissism and a naive faith in thefusion of scientific technique with the sentimentof humanity.

Humanitarians conceive of higher educationas encompassing just two tasks: theproduction and distribution of knowledge.They ignore the need for rationalreflection. Babbitt, echoing Montaigne,insisted that the ambition of teachers mustbe not "simply to distribute knowledge,not 'to lodge it with [their students]', butto 'marry it to them and make it part oftheir very minds and souls.'"21 This processof reflection and assimilation requiresthree things that are denied to today's students:teachers who have been selected onthe basis of their breadth of learning andmaturity of thought, profound texts thathave stood the test of time, and the leisureof reflecting together on the same subjectsover a period of years, not weeks. "Thefact that men once read the same books atcollege was no slight bond of fellowship."22According to Babbitt, we run the risk of"having our minds buried beneath a deadweightof information which we have noinner energy, no power of reflection, toput to our own uses and convert into vitalnutriment."23

By hollowing out the humanities,depriving them of their serious moral purpose,the humanitarian philosophy hasdriven students from liberal learning into anincreasingly narrow credential-mongeringand vocational orientation. The central disciplinesof philosophy, history, and modernand classical languages once attractedthe majority of college students—today,all of the humanities together make upless than a fifth. Who can blame studentsfor pursuing the art of hotel management,when the so-called "humanities" offer noalternative more ennobling? The Baconianphilosopher Herbert Spencer held art andliterature to be mere "play" and logicallyconcluded that they should occupy onlythe "leisure part of education."

One thing that Babbitt did not anticipatewas the rise of political correctnessin the academy, although his analysisprovided the grounds for forecasting theinevitability of that rise. Nature abhors avacuum: the emptying from the curriculumof the high moral purpose of characterformation and the acquisition of wisdomcreated a chasm into which a thousandideological demons have swarmed. Thecredo of knowledge for knowledge's sakeno longer inspires when the knowledge tobe gained is circumscribed to such minutiaeas the history of a single market cross.

The crises and disasters of the last centuryhave deprived the myth of inevitableProgress of its credibility. The selflesspursuit of humanitarian aims can persistonly if that myth is revived through allegianceto political ideology that promisesmillenarian transformation. A new kindof Gnosticism has captured higher education in the West, as Eric Voegelin predictedit would.24 Gnostics "immanentizethe eschaton," transferring the hoped-forinfinite value of salvation from the nextworld to the future of this one. The Judeo-Christian synthesis of late antiquity and theMiddle Ages reconciled our longing for aninfinite good with our acceptance of thefinite conditions of human life by conceivingof the finite good of human virtue andwisdom in this life as a necessary steppingstoneto the beatific vision of God in thenext. Modern political ideologues fromthe Jacobins to the Maoists seek to offer ashortcut to salvation, eliminating the needfor the straight and narrow path of selfcultivation.Instead, scientific techniqueand philanthropic enthusiasm, synthesizedby a seductively comprehensive politicaldoctrine, promise to distribute an infinitegood to everyone in the near future, ifonly we will swear our allegiance to theharbingers of revolution.

Willing participation in such politicalprograms has become the most stringentand essential of all academic credentials.The one place in the world in which Marxismstill thrives is within the literatureand social science departments of Americancolleges and universities. The gripof political correctness upon these fields,however, extends throughout the system,from elite universities to community colleges,with only engineering, economics,philosophy, and a few other stragglersholding out. These pedantic revolutionariesare doomed to failure: no parsing ofsyntax or "reimagining" of popular literatureand no critique of television sitcomswill ever overthrow the established order.However, the tactical folly of these Chesand Fidels of the classroom is little comfortwhen we take into account the hugecosts they exact in the form of lost opportunities.Students who spend their collegeyears being drilled in the catechisms of theLeft lose forever the chance to enrich theirimaginations, inform their consciences,and stimulate their powers of reflectionthrough reading together the great worksof our tradition under the tutelage of theheirs of that very tradition. A universitycan encompass the study of many cultures,but it can perpetuate only one. The devoteesof political correctness ensure that itperpetuates nothing at all.

Babbitt did note the tendency of academicideologues to set up "an imaginarydualism in society to take the place of thereal dualism in the breast of the individual."25 Babbitt anticipated Solzhenitsyn'sfamous aphorism: "the line between goodand evil runs through the human heart"(offered, coincidentally, at a Harvard commencementin 1978).26 Only when theacademy correctly locates the dichotomyof good and evil within the individualcan it return to its historic role of assistingthe good man in his perpetual strugglefor mastery over himself and his waywardimpulses. As Babbitt says, "By rightselection even more than by the fullnessof knowledge and sympathy, man proveshis superiority of essence, and shows thathe is something more than a mere forceof nature."27 Information, sympathy, ideology—all of these are at best neutral parties,at worst goads and inducements toevil. Wisdom consists in the ability to distinguishand weigh, selecting the best andrejecting the worst. Such wisdom requiresacquaintance with a fixed scale of value,anchored in the eternal verities of humannature and found within the intellectualpatrimony of our civilization.

It is not enough simply to banish"political correctness" and all thoughtof a higher purpose, as Stanley Fish hasrecently recommended.28 Fish is right tosee transformative ideology in the classroomas a colossal fraud, at best a waste oftime and energy and a distraction from thereal business of learning. However, so longas higher education is cut off from its classicalroots, such illusory substitutes for truemeaning and purpose will persist. Thevast machinery of the academic industrydepends for its survival on the successfulrecruitment of the narrow specialists oftomorrow, which in turn requires a moreinspiring vision than simply the endlessaccumulation of meaningless information,or the construction of new interpretationsof familiar texts, whose "truth" consistsin no more than their being grudginglyaccepted by one's fellow drones. (Fishfamously wise-cracked that, in academia,"the 'truth' is whatever my peers will letme get away with.")

Recovering the Classical Tradition
"My dear friend, clear your
mind of cant."
Dr. Johnson to Boswell

Dr. Johnson's advice is indispensable. Anymeaningful reform of higher educationdemands that we clear away the cant ofscientism and philanthropy. The modernresearch university is the last holdout ofStalinist central planning, industrial-agemass production, and progressivist fantasy.If Western civilization is to survive, theGreat Conversation initiated by Socratesand his friends must find a new watercourse:the university is clogged and pollutedbeyond all hope of redemption.

The university is on life support, dependenton only two mechanisms: massivegovernmental subsidies (loans, scholarships,research grants, and direct appropriations),and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Higher educationrepresents the biggest waste of publicresources since the Great Pyramids.The value of university research and ofuniversity degrees is fatuously exaggeratedby ignoring the simple distinctionbetween causation and correlation. Bothhighly educated regions and highly educatedindividuals are unusually productive,but there is every reason to think thateducation and productivity spring fromcommon causes (discipline, intelligence,and curiosity), rather than that educationraises productivity. The Griggs case forcesbusinesses to use college degrees as proxiesfor intelligence, since they are effectivelybarred from using the much cheaper andmore reliable alternative of direct testingof prospective employees, unless they canmeet the onerous burden of showing thetests used (which have disparate impact onvarious sub-populations) to be a matter of"business necessity."

The upward spiral of costs and thedownward spiral of perceived quality ofhigher education are rapidly pushing thesystem to a critical point, at which largenumbers of highly intelligent young peoplewill swell the ranks of the researchuniversity "refuseniks." Once the brightestyoung people opt out of the academic circus,selectivity rates at the top will beginto fall, causing the colleges to lose prestigeand their degrees to lose perceived value,resulting in still more defections, until thesystem collapses.

Marvelous lectures and texts are nowavailable for free online as an academicopen source. Social media and teleconferencingmake possible the spontaneousformation of international communities ofscholarly amateurs (in the original sense ofthe word), in and through which the heritageof the West can find its outlet. All thatis needed is for the remaining scholars ofthe true republic of letters, those faithfulthousands who have not "bowed the kneeto Baal," to join together to provide someformal quality control to the process.

The corporate and financial crises ofthe past decade, and the looming politicalcrisis of today, have revived in the public'smind the ancient truth that charactermatters. A successful revival of the classicaltradition can only take place whenthe connection between liberal learningand virtue can also be brought back intoview. This, in turn, requires the rejectionof the fact/value distinction and the entirehabit of scientific reductionism that has sodominated American life in the latter partof the twentieth century. It requires, too,the outgrowing of the Rousseauist cult ofspontaneity and enthusiasm. Such a revivalof the tradition is possible; in fact, Americahas been the locus of several such revivalsin the past. The reconstitution of civilizationwill begin with Burke's little platoons,growing organically into the space left byan increasingly sterile modernity. Thereis no substitute for patient, persistent toil,sustained by fellowship and by hope.


  1. Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College(Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute,1986).
  2. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948);Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot(Chicago, IL: H. Regnery, 1960).
  3. John Henry Newman,The Idea of a University (Garden City, NY: ImageBooks, 1959).
  4. Babbitt, Literature and the American College,114.
  5. Ibid., 127.
  6. Ibid., 92.
  7. Ibid., 86.
  8. Ibid.,137.
  9. Ibid., 159.
  10. Ibid., 144.
  11. Ibid., 90.
  12. Ibid., 91.
  13. Ibid., 96.
  14. Ibid., 97.
  15. Ibid., 98.
  16. Ibid., 103, n.12.
  17. Ibid., 100.
  18. Ibid., 101.
  19. Ibid., 123.
  20. Ibid.,126.
  21. Ibid., 125.
  22. Ibid., 122.
  23. Ibid., 157–58.
  24. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington,DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).
  25. Babbitt, Literature and the American College, 107.
  26. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, ed.Ronald Berman (Washington, DC: Ethics and PublicPolicy Foundation, 1980).
  27. Babbitt, Literature and theAmerican College, 100–101.
  28. Stanley Fish, Save theWorld on Your Own Time (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 2008).