Towards Building the American Lyceum

"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."
— Aristotle

American higher education, in its present form, is completely lost. There is no going back. That much is clear.

From Buckley, to Bloom, to Horowitz, to Sowell, to Boghossian, to Peterson, and others, the gradual degeneration of American academia has been well-documented, and for some time now; its death throes more spastic, comedic, and outlandish with each passing month.

Given the rapid, aggressive, and unremitting bleed-out of the Left’s pernicious ideas and ideologies straight from the ivory tower directly into the rest of America’s cultural institutions, an otherwise normal attitude of mockery and dismissiveness should now be replaced by one of stark seriousness and righteous indignation. The degeneration of American higher education tracks with the degeneration of the American citizen in general. And a republic lacking in the necessary attributes of proper education and proper citizenship cannot stand for much longer.

Accordingly, for those of us concerned about the next chapter in America’s history, both with respect to the culture generally and higher education specifically, the crucial question now in need of proper answering is what comes next?

And while there have been several recent initiatives attempting to articulate what a new and alternative higher educational model might begin to look like, I’d like to take some time here to offer some of my own thoughts on the matter which can be summed up as follows:

To save our country from woke, leftist totalitarianism, both within academia and beyond,  America must return to a classic model of higher education focusing primarily on the cultivation of both mind and body as well as character, competence, and virtue exemplified in the classic Aristotelian educational model.

Put another way, for America and her citizens to thrive again, we must rebuild Aristotle’s Lyceum. 

The Lyceum: A Brief History

The Lyceum, named in honor of Apollo Lyceus, was a school founded by the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in Athens in 335 B.C. as a rival to The Academy founded by his mentor, Plato. Originally a gymnasium for training athletes, the Lyceum, under Aristotle’s leadership, became a major cultural hub within the ancient world for learning and research in the areas of philosophy, logic, history, biology, science, and mathematics.

During his tenure at the Lyceum, Aristotle produced many influential philosophical works, including the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, and the Organon. Furthermore, many of his students during this time period became important philosophers and leaders themselves, including Theophrastus, Aristoxenus, and Alexander the Great.

After Aristotle’s death in 322 B.C., the Lyceum eventually fell into decline, officially closing in the first century B.C. Despite its closing, the Lyceum had a tremendous, long-standing influence and shaping effect upon both Western history and Western intellectual thought in general especially after Aristotle’s works were rediscovered in the Middle Ages and re-articulated through scholastics like St. Thomas Aquinas.

Later on, after the advent of the Enlightenment, the Aristotelian worldview began to wane. However, echoes of both the Lyceum and of Aristotelian thought in general would reemerge once again in the DNA of America’s governance and founding, within the pedagogical models of classical liberal arts colleges and service academies, and the 19th-century Lyceum Movement. This was an adult education and cultural movement in the United States, involving such thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass, aimed at promoting intellectual and moral development among U.S. citizens.

The Education of Mind, Body, and Virtue 

Central to the pedagogical model of the Lyceum was Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism; the view that all material things are composed of matter (hyle) and form (morphe). Matter refers to the substance which makes up a physical being, while form refers to the organization of that matter. Accordingly, an oak table, for instance, would be a composite of a specific material (i.e. wood) and a specific form (i.e. four equal legs and a flat top), both being necessary for the table’s existence. Were the table made out of water or shaped like a chair, it would cease to be a table in any meaningful sense.

Importantly, Aristotle’s theory applied not just to tables and chairs but to human beings as well, having profound implications regarding the relationship between mind and body as well as human nature. Contrary to the dominant and present-day Cartesian view of man; that of a sharp metaphysical separation between mind and body, the hylomorphic view saw mind and body as fundamentally inseparable. This account directly informed and dominated the classical Western worldview from Aristotle up until the Enlightenment. From philosophy, to religion, to science, to medicine, to law, to politics, to education; the entire classic Western world was undergirded by a hylomorphic metaphysics.

This view informed what education of the human person fundamentally looked like: from learning environments, to curricula, to methodology and practices. For Aristotle, this account was most important with regard to ethics. As man is fundamentally a composite of mind and body, ordered towards the final end of human flourishing (eudaimonia); education of a virtuous character through the cultivation of virtuous habit takes center stage within the Aristotelian educational paradigm. And since, in this view, man is not just a mind, but also a body, education of virtue fundamentally requires constant embodiment and real-world habituation, and not just the acquisition of abstract concepts and mere head knowledge. To understand or articulate the concept of courage is worlds apart from actually embodying courage in one’s own character. This view then explains why Aristotle chose a gymnasium of all places to be the educational crucible for the training of virtuous character as opposed to an inert, sterile, and sedentary classroom.

This classic Aristotelian worldview of what constituted human flourishing, had a long-lasting impact on Western man’s conception of both the nature and purpose of human knowledge as well as the nature and purpose of academia itself and permeated every institution and aspect of the classic Western world. The traditional Aristotelian university and Aristotelian world was one of integration.

Fragmented Universities, Persons, and Worlds

Much of the Aristotelian worldview just described is in fragmented pieces now, with fragmented persons and a fragmented society to match. Having rejected almost all traditional Aristotelian notions and practices, proponents of this waning modernist/Enlightenment paradigm, sensing something is deeply amiss, now find themselves scrambling to hold the line, resorting to various appeals to classical liberalism, contractualism, scientism, economic theories, artificial intelligence, and various forms of rights language; all to little to no effect against the advancing woke onslaught.

Such a predicament therefore compels us to seriously reexamine the fundamental presuppositions of the Enlightenment modernist project as such; namely, its jettisoning of hylomorphism, its rejecting of human telos, and its severing of mind from body, fact from value.

Going Back

America is in a fast-growing state of disintegration. As wokeism creeps further into the DNA of our institutions, combating such disintegration will necessarily require serious reconsideration as to what values, virtues, knowledge, and practices we regard to be important, worthwhile, and worth saving. 

Knowledge and education of the body, of virtue, and of character must be remembered and cultivated; education of the heart cultivated most of all.

The collapsing of American higher education presents us with a unique and novel opportunity: an opportunity to begin to recover what has been lost, to revitalize both our heads and our hearts, and to start anew; as educators, as parents, as students, and as citizens. The West flourished and prospered for almost two millennia, and we can flourish and prosper again. 

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About Michael Robillard

Dr. Michael Robillard is an independent scholar, philosopher, and U.S. Army veteran. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Oxford, and the U.S. Naval Academy. His other writings can be found at www.michaelrobillard.com and on Twitter @RobillardDr.

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