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    Grove City College Campus

    Do Universities Educate?

    My quest for education as formation led me to leave an elite university for a small Christian college where community is more than marketing.

    By Sarah Reardon

    November 5, 2022
    • Naomi Johnson

      This is a beautiful, truth-ringing piece. I'm privileged to have come across it. Thank you and thank you, Sarah and Plough!

    • Joe

      Beautiful & Good is how I feel about this article. Blessings to the Author!!!

    • Tim Jones

      An excellent, incisive piece of writing. Thank you. Your observations concerning university education holds generally true across the western world. Outside of north America there is relatively little diversity of educational outlook from which to choose, however.

    • Jill

      I am glad you found fellowship that that fed your soul at the small Christian college. However, a small setting, Christian even, does not guarantee that will hai. Our son attended a small Christian university and through no fault of his own " fell through the cracks". In his last semester, while he struggled no one reached out to him, except his professor via email to ask if he was going to turn in his class assignment. That was very sad! I hope that university has improved their ways of "formation teaching" because it has caused a decade of loss for one bright young man.

    • David R Hosick

      Could the Christian college be Grove City College?

    My fingers quivered as I drew my mouse toward that too-familiar button, blue as the spring sky outside my window: “Join Meeting in Progress.” Across the Zoom sat my Latin professor, ready with a wide smile and a smattering of compliments about my participation in a recent class discussion of Catullus.

    “So, tell me why you want to transfer,” she said. After I requested a letter of recommendation, she had asked to meet with me over Zoom, much to my surprise. The screen we shared that morning would be our first and last personal discussion.

    The professor who had taught each virtual Latin class of the past year with a background photo of the Pantheon, Roman Forum, or Aegean Sea now spoke from a bland home office. That gray background, her true locale all along, remains my sole glimpse into her life.

    From my cluttered childhood room a state away, I answered her inquiry with an abbreviated account of my freshman year. I desired to transfer, I told her, because I was dissatisfied.

    My flustered explanation, however, hardly imparted the frustration and desire that defined my first year of college. Amid my share of Covid-related mental and emotional troubles – which for students ranged from unprecedented student disengagement to substance abuse and suicide – I hungered for deeper spiritual and intellectual community.

    During the first autumn of the pandemic, despair festered within my dorm room walls. My face yellowed and thinned in front of screens blinking with Zoom classes and Google meets. As I spoke to my professor, I wondered how I could possibly frame a sickness so total to a woman I barely knew – whom I had seen only from her blazer-covered shoulders up, in flat images against artificial backdrops.

    She attempted what sympathy may be expressed through screens, praised my academic work, and advised me to investigate the Ivy League or other top-tier state schools like the university we then shared. Anything but “that little school” I had mentioned – a small Christian liberal-arts college that she “had never heard of.” She dropped her voice, as if speaking grave news: “Sarah, if you go to that school, you will be disappointed.”

    After my professor departed only my own blushing face occupied my vision. And only my own silhouette returned my blank, screen-searching gaze after my computer turned off.

    I remained in that searching state for weeks. I took seriously my professor’s request to reconsider, but it led me nowhere. My professor could not understand that my dissatisfaction was not just another Covid symptom. My parents raised me to view education as soul formation. My brush with the impersonal machinery of a major university had crumbled my sense of integration between mind and heart. This was not formation but malformation.

    Such disintegration – which Covid-era practices like distance learning merely called attention to – defines the modern university. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues in God, Philosophy, Universities, “The very notion of the nature and order of things, or a single universe … no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university. It has become an irrelevant concept.” The idea of integration itself “presuppose[s] an underlying unity to the universe” that cannot fit within the specialized, departmentalized framework of today’s universities.

    Grove City College Campus

    Meanwhile, I took integration for granted. I encountered the university’s machinery after years at a small classical Christian school, grounded in collegial discussion around canonical texts and the ancient subjects of the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In high school, Plato’s Republic impressed upon me that education should turn those chained in a cave away from their own shadows, toward the light of the good. After all, the English word “educate” is derived from the Latin educare, which literally means “to lead out.” But my initial education in a university classics department, despite reading worthy authors such as Virgil and Catullus, had led me to nothing.

    Why study Latin in the first place? My university’s answers resembled those I had heard in classical school: to learn the foundations of civilization, to read the great books in the original, to delight in the harmonies of language. The classics department retained its allegiance to Mortimer Adler’s notion of a “great conversation” across the centuries.

    Yet great conversation across centuries is not the same as fellowship. Even induction to the department’s honors society played out over Zoom, featuring hundreds of students, names mispronounced and lives unknown by their peers and professors. The department’s event did not honor the process of being drawn from darkness to light, for that would hint at the underlying unity of a shared light to look toward. The department, rather, named the “self-starters” who drew themselves up from the language’s difficulty, faced the tasks of translation, and achieved them smoothly.

    Absent an underlying unity – absent the good conversations that acknowledging a higher good allows – how far can the “great conversation” reach? What can greatness, absent goodness, accomplish?

    Several weeks after I exited my professor’s Zoom room, a good conversation played out over coffee with a former teacher of mine who had graduated from my prospective new college. In front of a local coffee shop – owned by a woman who shared Sunday mornings at my grandmother’s church and memories of high school with my father – Monica embraced me and insisted I call her by her first name.

    We ambled around the back of the familiar shop to sit by the bike path that traces through our town, holding steaming coffee cups and foil-wrapped crepes, handmade next door. She traded stories with me as a friend or mentor would. We discussed college, our classical school, recent reads, and Wendell Berry’s localism. More than that, though, she extended wisdom from her own experience, recounting struggles and lessons from Christian college, graduate school, ministry work with students, and years as a high-school teacher.

    “Have you ever been dissatisfied?” I asked hesitatingly, after two hours of conversation. I wondered whether her path through less-than-prestigious educational circles had left her feeling trapped in a life without sufficient rigor – caged, as my Latin professor expected I would feel at a small Christian college.

    “No,” she answered. A smile lit her face. Monica explained that she felt content with her place. She had come to see the abundance of good work to be done even at a little-known, little-paying school that still rented a building from a local church.

    Her contentment and her easygoing, three-dimensional mentorship encouraged me, drawing me out of my freshman malaise.

    In both classical Christian schools and secular classics departments, the concept of soul formation – connected to the Greek word paideia – echoes through declarations of purpose. Education, such institutions at least verbally acknowledge, involves this Greek ideal, which classicist Werner Jaeger summarizes as “the process of educating man into his true form.” Likewise, translators of the New Testament frame this paideia as “training,” “nurture,” or “discipline” – a process which ultimately involves personal relationship. Training toward virtue requires a relational setting like that which Monica enabled.

    Similar conversations with other former teachers convinced me that fellowship does indeed matter. People who share local places, stories, meals, and the presupposition of “underlying unity” may, through fellowship, pursue an education of the heart that University, Inc. cannot easily cultivate. As Allan Bloom argues in his well-known 1987 critique of the contemporary university, The Closing of the American Mind, “The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth … It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.” Depersonalized educational systems tend away from fellowship in search of truth, despite their “simulacra of community.”

    What can greatness, absent goodness, accomplish?

    At that unheard-of Christian college to which I transferred, professors build relationships with students in all manner of ways, not only on Sunday mornings, when we share local pews, but throughout the week. Invitations to weekday lunches, Sunday dinners, and Christmas gatherings are common, as are requests to babysit, refer to professors by their first names, or help with moving, mowing, or gardening.

    For all its joys, such community has its tradeoffs. My Latin professor was right that an unheard-of school might reduce opportunities for recognition and career advancement. And to the credit of my former university – which I experienced only during the social limitations of the Covid pandemic – it does have a more diverse student body. Students here are just as likely to mire themselves in biases and ideologies as my peers at a secular university, and a vocal minority of students or parents can easily politicize and embitter the conversation of a small campus. Yet I’ve found that such discord is the exception to the rule: this place really is committed to conversations both great and good in pursuit of truth.

    Cardinal John Henry Newman writes that “the heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” For hearts to be formed, students need personal examples. We need the testimony of real life “facts and events.” We need deeds, and we need stories of such deeds. Newman’s care for interpersonal influence accords with his motto: cor ad cor loquitor, “heart speaks to heart.” Without this speech of cor ad cor, liberal education – whether reading Latin or discussing great books – cannot facilitate formation. Simply studying the humanities cannot answer the contemporary problems that MacIntyre and Bloom recognized and Covid exacerbated.

    Rather as Eva Brann, classicist and St. John’s College tutor, suggests, we need alternative places which can provide the communion requisite for formation, “little places which permit the modesty of pace needed for long thoughts, and the conditions of closeness under which human beings begin to stand out and become distinct.” Without such a context of “closeness,” education cannot reach beyond the shimmering two-dimensionality that the days of Zoom University gave image to.

    In a column reacting to abstract educational conferences, G. K. Chesterton writes that “there is no education apart from some particular kind of education. There is no education that is not sectarian education” Disintegrating education from a particular context and a particular worldview, Chesterton maintains, renders talk of education incoherent. As he writes elsewhere, all education necessitates an attempt at “transmission” or “inheritance” of particular ways of seeing the world – education means “giving something, perhaps poison.”

    Giving life requires transmission between living beings, as Xenophon acknowledged. At the close of The Education of Cyrus, Xenophon’s King Cyrus, educated in “excellency,” now can instruct his subjects in the way of virtue only by modeling virtue. Cyrus sees that his own endeavor after uprightness, self-control, and other virtues will “inspire a desire for the beautiful and the good.” And the beautiful and good – which the Greeks understood as kalokagathia, a single, integrated standard of virtuous conduct – together represent the end of paideia.

    Xenophon’s picture of a king who teaches truth by example – drawing his subjects into the beautiful and good via friendship and fellowship – has a familiar ring for Christians. After all, the king of creation dwelt among us, instructing by personal influence. Christ walked alongside his students, leaving them an example to follow. His model of teaching culminated in the hours before his death, when he washed his disciples’ feet before he supped with them.

    By following Christ’s example, his followers testify to the personal dimensions of true paideia. We have been – and are being, and will be – formed by his fellowship with us. Over that shared meal, Christ hinted at what his soon-to-be-suffering body, “broken for you,” would accomplish: leading us out from the flickering shadows of sin into the blaze of his new day. Unlike Plato’s allegory of education, here no self-starter climbs from her cave but Light himself descends into the darkness to draw us cave-dwellers up and out.

    Contributed By SarahReardon Sarah Reardon

    Sarah Reardon (formerly Soltis) teaches at a classical Christian school. Her writing has appeared in First Things, Public Discourse, Front Porch Republic, and elsewhere.

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