Oct 21, 2021
As far as I can tell, the original quote came from an episode of “That 70s Show.” A character whose name I don’t know because I never watched it says, “Well, I’ve decided to major in philosophy.” Another character responds, “Well that’s good, because they just opened that big philosophy factory in Green Bay.”
We laugh because we immediately get the joke: a philosophy degree is economically useless and doesn’t help students produce anything of practical value. The line suggests that philosophy is an esoteric pursuit, akin to sitting around with our chin on our fist like Rodin’s Thinker, contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Only non-contributing eggheads waste time and money on such things. A worthwhile education would involve practical training in some technical skill—something that falls within the fields of, say, science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
It’s a common attitude, especially among those who would identify themselves as politically conservative. And it’s understandable, considering the philosophies on offer at so many American universities these days—philosophies chiefly concerned with identifying power dynamics, dismantling social constructs, and amplifying degeneracy under the guise of “giving a voice to marginalized sexual minorities.” Conservative parents could be forgiven for being suspicious of modern higher education, especially the humanities, after seeing Seattle descend into garbage-strewn anarchy under the demands of 20-something ideologues. Philosophy means “the love of wisdom,” but there’s nothing lovely or wise about students being taught to despise Western civilization, their own ethnic heritage, and especially Christianity.
But those with sharp eyes and ears will notice that we haven’t gotten rid of philosophy by focusing on “practical” studies. We have, in fact, assumed one philosophy in particular that says education is all about increasing our earning potential and our future economic output. We might call this the “technocratic philosophy” of education. And it’s a very new one.
For many centuries that saw the founding of the great universities in Europe and America, education—whether primary, secondary, or postsecondary—was guided by a different philosophy that saw all human knowledge as united and purposeful, and saw learning as an act of glorifying God. If you look up at the peaks of archways in the most storied schools, you can still see traces of that philosophy, so long forgotten by most professors and students.
“Lux et Veritas”—light and truth—is the old motto of Yale. “Dominus illuminatio mea”—“The Lord is my light”—has been Oxford’s slogan for centuries. These Latin phrases harken back to a view of education as neither an effort to deconstruct civilization, nor as a means of padding resumes and securing middle-class status. In this older view, learning was about forming virtuous citizens who know to use their skills and order their affections for the good of all—to love what is true, good, and beautiful, and to hate what is false, evil, and ugly.
Indeed, the very word “university” is a relic of this view. It implies a unity of all knowledge, whether math and science or theology and literature. To have a “liberal” education today may mean learning to replace the American flag with a rainbow one and replace Christianity with Critical Theory. But the term
originally meant an education suited for a member of a free society—someone worthy and capable of self-government.
No one understood or believed in this view more than C. S. Lewis, himself a lifelong educator. He portrays the distortions of modern education again and again in his works. In “The Chronicles of Narnia,” he describes Eustace Clarence Scrubb as a boy who had read all the wrong sorts of books—those about “exports and imports” and “governments” and “grain elevators,”—but never books about dragons. The same Eustace later finds himself at an experimental school where bad behavior and bullying are studied by psychologists, rather than punished. And earlier in the series, Professor Digory Kirke is bewildered at finding that Lucy Pevensie’s siblings never learned logic from Plato. “What do they teach in these schools?” he wonders aloud.
But nowhere does Lewis more clearly articulate the wrong turn education has taken, together with his view of the purpose of education, than in “The Abolition of Man.” This week on Upstream, Bethlehem College President Joe Rigney joined me to unpack the riches in Lewis’ thought on learning. Rigney thinks the Oxford don’s views are summed up in his central image of “men without chests.”
According to Lewis, the principal purpose of education from grade school to grad school is the formation of virtuous habits in young people—a “chest” full of just sentiments that can mediate between the intellect (the “head”) and the appetites (the “belly”). In fact, using the term “humanities” to describe areas of study like philosophy is appropriate, since for Lewis, the aim of education is to produce well-functioning humans. And the mistake of removing the chest from the center of education shows up in modern education’s bad fruit: angry idealogues ruled by the demands of their bellies, and calculating technocrats ruled by the demands of their wallets.
For Dr. Rigney (and for Lewis) the task of Christian educators is to resist both of these errors, and to recover the tools and telos of an older, better kind of education. I hope you’ll listen to our conversation and dig deeper into what it means to teach the next generation not merely how to make money, but how to be free, virtuous, self-governing and truly wise. Because even though there may not be any philosophy factories, every institution of learning—whether home school, classical Christian school, or university—is a factory, of sorts, and the type of humans it turns out depends very much on its philosophy.