When Russell Kirk wrote about his experiences as a junior professor at Michigan State University, he invariably referred to it as Behemoth State University. Michigan State, my alma mater, was a decent agricultural college grown into a massive research university by a politically adept poultry scientist, John Hannah. Today, I work at a similar institution, the University of Texas at Austin, which recently gave its head football coach a $2 million raise while cutting $8 million from its budget for foreign language instruction. The research university, whether public (like Texas or Michigan State) or private (like Stanford, Duke or Johns Hopkins), represents 20th-century gigantism at its apogee, combining all the virtues of Stalinist central planning, progressivist-utopian fantasy, and industrial mass-production.

On the surface, the Behemoth State Universities appear to be a smashing success, realizing all of the ardent hopes of the egalitarian architects of the G. I. Bill of the 1940’s and the scientific boosters of the Sputnik era. Millions of Americans have dutifully jumped through the hoops and claimed their credentials. Promoters of the system are quick to point out that college graduates earn an additional 60% in income, amounting to a college-education premium of over $1 million on average during the course of a lifetime. However, skeptics have a ready and cogent response: that such an argument is guilty of a crude post hoc fallacy, confusing causation and correlation in a way that would earn no more than an A- in even the most grade-inflated college statistics course. College graduates earn more than those who have not graduated primarily because bright, literate people are more likely to succeed both in college and in life. There is virtually no evidence that success in college yields tangible benefits later in life, in contrast to the very tangible debt typically acquired.

But what about intangible benefits? Virtue? Character? A coherent and serene philosophy of life? I can still remember the day when deans and presidents at least gave lip service to such ideals (as La Rochefoucauld put it, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue). Nowadays, such pretense would provoke nothing but cynical chortles.

What about the benefits of university research? Mark Bauerlein has ably documented the fact that the deluge of literature and language research monographs is now far beyond the saturation point, with output up 26% over the last six years and average sales of each monograph dropping from 2500 to 700 or 800. To paraphrase Churchill, never before in history have so many written so much to be read by so few. Even in the hard sciences there is reason to be skeptical. Many in industry report that university-sponsored research is no longer useful. This is to be expected, since university research is funded by log-rolling peer review within communities of specialists, many of whom have a vested interest in perpetuating research programs that have long since exhausted their potential. Add to this the ideological pressure to reach politically correct results, as has come to light in the Climategate scandal. And perhaps it is worth noting that the state of Texas is flourishing economically with only three top-level “Research I” universities, while California, with nine, languishes on the brink of bankruptcy.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

America’s higher-education system perpetuates itself in a tightly circumscribed feedback loop: a university education is popular because universities are selective; universities are selective because admissions are competitive; and admissions are competitive because a university education is popular. Instead of making university education more affordable, huge federal and state subsidies drive the spiral of costs higher, resulting in runaway tuition inflation, which persists even in the midst of a deep recession. At some point in the near future, the prohibitively high costs will unwind the positive feedback loop into a vicious, downward spiral as thousands of the best students join the ranks of the university refuseniks, depriving admission to university of its selective cachet.

What has brought us to this point? Russell Kirk blamed the influx of federal funds, beginning with the G. I. Bill, for creating overgrown institutions that lost the quasi-monastic communities and academic traditions of America’s small liberal arts colleges. However, this influx of aid could not be the sufficient cause, since it might instead have led to the proliferation of small colleges dedicated to classical learning. The windfall of government aid wouldn’t have ruined the system had it been intellectually sound. However, the colleges and universities in America in the post-war era were already under the influence of forces deeply antithetical to the classical and Judeo-Christian heritage: Baconian scientism and Rousseauite sentimentalism, as was brilliantly outlined by Harvard’s Irving Babbitt in his 1908 jeremiad, Literature and the American College.

As Babbitt observed, the superficial tensions between the “two cultures” of scientific pragmatism and romantic individualism merely disguise their more fundamental affinities. Both are united in their rejection of the teleologically ordered cosmos of the classical tradition, with its finite and universal goal of happiness-through-self-restraint (eudaimonia). In its place, the moderns substitute the unbounded pursuit of infinite progress, both through the attainment of ever-greater technical power over nature (including human nature) and through the ever-novel exercise of the idyllic imagination and the ever-freer indulgence of spontaneous whim. These aspirations expressed themselves in the new college curriculum of the twentieth century, which substituted a smorgasbord of electives for a common and coherent course of studies, and replaced the scholar’s reflection and synoptic vision with the fragmentation and hyper-specialization of the professional researcher.

The examination of the new college curriculum brings to light the underlying commonality between scientistic and sentimental humanitarianism. In practice, both advance a course of study that privileges the quantity of information absorbed over any selection based on quality. Both conceive of the college as an engine of social progress, ignoring the vitally important task of the “assimilation and perpetuation of culture,” in Babbitt’s words. Both deny the existence of a natural end or telos of man, the conception of a finite, bounded and balanced fulfillment of human nature, rationally intelligible and fixed. Both reduce the scope of knowledge to what can be secured by the methods of physical science, with the capacity to control and manipulate as its acid test. Both hold the wisdom of the past in contempt, replacing piety toward our forebears with a chronological narcissism and a naïve faith in the fusion of scientific technique with the sentiment of humanity.

Technological advances, ironically enabled by the modern research university, may make its eventual displacement possible. The great texts that make up the ancient canon and well crafted lectures and introductions to those texts are now freely available on-line as an academic open source (Babbit’s book, available on Google Books, is just one example). Social media and teleconferencing make possible the spontaneous formation of international communities of scholarly amateurs (in the original sense of the word), in and through which the heritage of the West can still find its outlet. All that is needed is for scholars committed to the true republic of letters to join together to provide some formal quality control to the process. This model would provide students from modest backgrounds who aspire to a classical education a low-cost credential by examination (modeled on the final examination schools of Oxford and Cambridge), as an alternative to the residential four-year college.

Existing colleges and universities will no doubt survive in some form, but in order to best meet the needs of the present and the future they will need to outsource their vocational training efforts to community colleges and distance learning and decentralize control over the traditional arts curriculum. The large-scale bureaucracy should concentrate on what it does best (ancillary student services, property maintenance) and leave education to small and innovative “charter colleges,” freed from the control of the politically correct bureaucrats and the tyranny of the faculty majority. This reform would empower small cadres of teachers to revive the classical curriculum and the close-knit communities of our ancient and native liberal-arts tradition.

The task of the classical educator in today’s world is not to tame the verdant wilderness but rather, in C. S. Lewis’s words, “to irrigate the deserts.” The corporate and financial crises of the past decade, and the looming political crisis of today, have revived in the public’s mind the ancient truth that character matters. A successful revival of the classical tradition can only take place when the connection between liberal learning and virtue can also be brought back into view. Such a revival of the tradition is possible: in fact, America has been the locus of several such revivals in the past. The reconstitution of civilization will begin with Burke’s small platoons growing organically into the space left by an increasingly sterile modernity. There is no substitute for patient, persistent toil, sustained by fellowship and by hope.