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Great America

Elite Universities Have Failed to Produce Elites

The nation is in desperate need of a true aristocracy of merit.


- October 15th, 2019
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The higher education system composed of “elite” institutions has failed to produce a truly educated elite to serve the nation. They have instead produced bureaucrats, financiers, and the engineers of Silicon Valley. Highly ranked and regarded institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton or “public ivies” like the University of Virginia, University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley have failed to produce men and women who are statesmen, creators, and leaders.

Students, parents, and high school administrators spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to get themselves and their students into these institutions. Why? Not because of the promise they will receive an education (one cannot call four years almost entirely devoid of facts and disconnected from reality an education) but because it is expected that the time and money spent will launch them towards financial and professional success. This is a tragedy for the nation and a disaster for these institutions. It is something that cries out for reform and action from conservatives.

The nation is in desperate need of a true aristocracy of merit. Throughout history, the elites of the regime, whether Roman, English, or American have shaped the virtues, goals, and laws through their influence and example. The current system is failing to produce them. Instead, it has given us students who work aggressively to be admitted into highly ranked institutions and, once admitted, are rarely kicked out. Immense resources are devoted to assisting these students, and if they are struggling there is a program, tutor, or relaxed deadline to ensure they graduate.

We have created a ruling class where admission into the elite, powerful, and wealthy circles of the nation is secured by one’s college acceptance. It is well known and expected that these students will go on to become doctors, politicians, scientists, businessmen, and bankers. They are not taught to think or to understand how man has answered the perennial questions of existence. Neither are they equipped with a firm grasp of history, literature, or reality. Instead, they are trained to mouth the pieties of our “thought leaders.” Praise of diversity and tolerance is demanded of them. Likewise, they are to refrain from controversial behavior (such as support for the Second Amendment, opposition to homosexuality or abortion). This reflects a failure in understanding what a liberal arts education is and its importance for a free society.

One can only hope that out of the sheep at Harvard and Yale there might arise a statesman. Yet we cannot count on this.

What Makes a Truly Liberal Education

The purpose of an elite education is to create habits of mind and character in free men so that they can lead and sustain a regime of liberty and limited government. The university is not merely a place to acquire technical skills and receive vocational training. This would be a technical education. Technical education is useful and necessary; it allows one to accomplish a task so well an employer will pay for it. But these skills by themselves are limiting in a population at large. We need people who, in addition to being capable in their vocations, are also able to engage in the politics of freedom. In other words, we need citizens.

The purpose of a college education—and more specifically, a liberal arts education—is higher. Technical education is narrow and specific: piloting a boat, performing surgery, or filing legal forms. A truly liberal education is an education for free men with free minds who have the ability and leisure to ask the fundamental questions. What is the purpose of life? How should the good, the true, and the beautiful be pursued? Is there a transcendent standard for all of men’s actions at all times?

A liberal arts education is for the free not merely in the sense of men with the leisure and time to engage in it but also in the sense of men who are not enslaved to their passions. The relationship between free men, free regimes, and free minds is therefore very close.

Politics goes hand-in-hand with a liberal education. This is because politics is the art that informs and orders all other arts. While the science of politics is practical on the one hand (asking when to go to war, how to structure the laws, and defining victory), it is also intensely theoretical because it requires the study of human nature. The American regime requires virtuous citizens if it is to survive and flourish. To accomplish this, the Founders established a Constitution with limited government and equal rights under the equal protection of the laws. To preserve this great system of government requires liberally educated citizens. It also requires liberally educated elites, an aristocracy of the best, the virtuous, and the wise.

Thomas Jefferson intended the University of Virginia to fulfill such a role. The 1818 “Report of the Commissioners of the University of Virginia” identified the purpose of such an education:

To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend; To expound the principles and structure of government, . . . and a sound spirit of legislation, which . . . shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another; to harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce . . . ; to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves. These are the objects of that higher grade of education, the benefits and blessings of which the Legislature now propose to provide for the good and ornament of their country . . . .

The Founders were men of mind and character, prudence and action. They hoped higher education would assist in the perpetuation of liberty and the formation of statesmen, creators, and philosophers competent to lead the nation. Instead, higher education in America today exacerbates class and ideological divides.

Ruling Class vs. The Rest

The United States today is divided between two classes: the ruling class and the rest of us. The ruling class dominates government, academia, Hollywood, the media, and much else. This class, by and large, is trained by the faculties of “elite” colleges and universities. While these institutions once produced men of the caliber of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Theodore Roosevelt, they now give us people like the Clintons—a family that has gamed the system for profit while decrying the character of the nation. This ruling class enjoys immense wealth, power, and privilege. It looks down upon the rest of the country and deems it racist, ignorant, gun-obsessed, and bigoted. Yet this same elite has failed to produce statesmen, combat the opioid crisis or foresee the 2008 economic recession. Instead, it has mired the nation in combat in the Middle East.

Nihilism, relativism, historicism, and the diversity mantra have poisoned American education. If nihilism is true, there is no point in engaging in politics because it is utterly meaningless. It is reflective of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, where the strong do what they will and the weak do what they must. If relativism is true then there is no standard of right and wrong. Engaging in cannibalism or refusing to eat grandma become matters of mere individual preference.

This line of thought makes it difficult if not impossible to draw the line between good and evil in domestic and foreign policy. If the historicist is right then men are trapped in the age into which they were born. They cannot have a true understanding of what is right but only of what their society and time will allow them. Moreover, the future is bound to condemn us because who knows what modern virtue will be viewed by our descendants as vice, cruelty, or inanity?

Those who engage in the multiculturalist agenda fail to recognize the need for agreement about the ends of government and justice (we can disagree about the means) if the regime is to survive. Otherwise, the United States risks becoming balkanized and tribal, whites against blacks, rich versus, the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” These -isms are widely indoctrinated into the youth and leaders of America. They fail to recognize fundamental truths regarding human nature.

Man is a moral being with free will and reason. He is not a mere product of material and historical causes without agency. Great men may deliberate about the common good and practice the virtue of prudence, the act of adhering to eternal principles while recognizing the demands of present reality. While science and technology have advanced, the virtue, prudence, and statesmanship of men have not. They do not. They will not.

The world has only gotten closer since World War II—communications are faster, travel is easier, and we are all more connected than ever before. The potential for and ease of war, chaos, and destruction are greater than ever. Therefore, the education of a true elite is all the more important.

The failure of elite universities to train individuals who understand America’s Western heritage, comprehend natural law and natural rights, and are competent in their fields is a crisis. The men and women who fill these roles set the tone and direction for the country, regardless of the fitness of their educations. They are leading us off a cliff.

One can only hope that out of the sheep at Harvard and Yale there might arise a statesman. Yet we cannot count on this. It is time for Christians, conservatives, and individuals who recognize the role, necessity, and importance of a true elite consistent with the purpose of the Republic to consider ways of reform and perhaps it is time to look elsewhere than at our so-called “elite” schools. Let us start, perhaps, at Hillsdale College?

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