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Higher Education: Excellence without a Soul

  • S. Michael Craven Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture
  • 2006 13 Sep
Higher Education: Excellence without a Soul

Another school year has begun and an estimated 15 million young men and women will be pursuing studies at the college and university levels. However, this may not be as beneficial as we have historically believed higher education to be.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil." This point was echoed in a recent Dallas Morning News article under the apt heading, All Brains, no Soul. The author, Thomas Hibbs is a philosopher and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.

Hibbs begins by quoting Plato's Apology in which Plato, quoting Socrates' defense of himself at trial, says:

You are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

Hibbs makes the point that we Americans, are becoming like the Athenians that Socrates is addressing, especially when it comes to the object and aim of higher education today.

Few today attend university for the purpose of "gaining wisdom" or giving care to the state of their soul. Instead, the emphasis is upon obtaining a degree which, it is believed, will insure material success. In fact, the whole emphasis of higher education today seems to be of only an instrumental nature; a means to an end and not an end in itself.

W.E.B. DuBois, the most prominent intellectual leader and political activist on behalf of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century writing on the goal of higher education said, "The final product of our training must neither be a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure and inspiring ends of living, - not sordid money getting, not apples of gold." Lewis referred to this as "making men without chests!"

William H. Willimon, former professor and dean at Duke University, shares his observations at Duke's school of business:

For several years, students were asked to write a personal strategic plan for the ten-year period after their graduation.With few exceptions, they wanted three things - money, power, and things. Primarily concerned with their careers and the growth of their financial portfolios, their personal plans contained little room for family, intellectual development, spiritual growth, or social responsibility.(The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education, 1995)

By exchanging the nobler virtues for consumerist ends, Hibbs points out that the American university has become a setting for debauchery and hedonism virtually unparalleled. A recent Rolling Stone magazine article following the Duke Lacrosse team scandal offers chilling insight into the depraved culture prevalent on university campuses today. (I warn you that the article is quite graphic.)

Rolling Stone reports that "Sex at Duke is a sport most students participate in, on some level or another." Adding that, "The vagaries of sex on campus have created a specific 'hookup culture' at Duke, ...As one male student describes it, it 'exists in a whirlwind of drunkenness and horniness that lacks definition - which is what everyone likes about it [because] it's just an environment of craziness and you don't have to worry about it until the next morning.'"

The article also goes on to describe an emerging attitude among young women in which they view and enthusiastically embrace this sexual anarchy as a form of "liberation" where they are able to subjugate themselves to all manner of sexual debauchery in the name of unencumbered choice. There is no romance, no emotion just pure animalistic behavior. One young woman even recognizes the condition when she says, "Girls reduce themselves a lot here in order to be able to have the sexual freedom that I think they don't have by doing that," but, she indicates little or no inclination to counter this pressure.

Another female undergrad points out, "I've never been asked out on a date in my entire life -- not once," says one stunning brunette. Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink, according to the author. "I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs." Rather, the article's author adds, "there's the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by -- well, nothing, usually."

The culture presented, in which students, obsessed with style, acceptance and pleasure, comes eerily close to the Athenians described by Socrates. Students are still driven to exceed academically but only for the purpose of achieving their material ends. However, in the absence of real wisdom and higher virtues what we are left with are increasing generations of morally inferior and intellectually vacuous men and women incapable of true greatness.

In Hibbs' article he cites numerous examples where this culture is not exclusive to Duke University but in fact typical of most universities - a fact often unknown to naive parents and seemingly ignored by school administrators.

I am not suggesting that these students experience some radical transformation of values upon stepping onto the college campus. These values are generally already present or the moral convictions which enable them to withstand the moral decadence confronting them are simply not there. College only provides the opportunity where such students can express their personal virtue or lack thereof, in the absence of parental supervision.

Parents must adequately prepare their children to enter such a hostile moral environment and promote the true object of education: the cultivation of wisdom and virtue that honors God, to learn what it means to be human and to open our hearts and minds to the best that has been written and imagined. This was the purpose of a classical liberal education and it still offers a foundation from which we may recover a right knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Copyright S. Michael Craven 2006

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S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to recapture and demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit:

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.