A recent Wall Street Journal article by Richard Vedder and Christopher Denhart concludes, “Many poorly endowed and undistinguished schools may bite the dust, but America flourished when buggy manufacturers went bankrupt thanks to the automobile.  The cleansing would be good for a higher education system still tied to its medieval origins – and for the students it’s robbing.”

Vedder and Denhart are right about the need for reform, but they are mistaken about what kind of reform is needed.  And they are utterly confused in thinking that the problem is that universities are “still tied to medieval origins.”

Medieval students had to master seven elementary studies before going on to advanced degrees.  The first three, called the trivium, were grammar, or the laws of language; rhetoric, or the laws of argument; and dialectic, or the laws of clear thought.  The next four, called the quadrivium, were arithmetic, or the laws of number; geometry, or the laws of figure; music, or the laws of harmony; and astronomy, or the laws of inherent motion.

Why these seven?  Because medieval universities were organized around the view that the universe makes sense, that knowledge is grasping that sense, that the mind can really grasp it, that all knowledge is related, and that all of its parts form a meaningful whole. 

By contrast, our universities are organized around – what?  Actually, they aren’t universities at all, because they have given up their vision, the coherence of universal reality and its friendliness to the rational mind.

Most humanities scholars gave up that view some time ago.  In fact, they mock it.  That’s why we have so little that even pretends to be a core curriculum, and why even general education courses are a smorgasbord.  The pretentious postmodernist credo is “suspicion of metanarratives,” which means no one gets the Big Story right.

Of course that is a Big Story too.  “Once upon a time people believed there was a Big Story which would make sense of things if only they could get it right.  Now we know better, because there isn't any Big Story, so no one gets it right.  And we are the clever ones the ones who got that right.”

How clever are these clever ones?  You tell me.  Several years ago my own university sponsored a freshman assembly about choosing a major.  Faculty in the humanities and sciences presented pep talks for their fields of study; student leaders asked them questions.  The tone of the event was epitomized by the question, “If you were a bar of soap, whose shower would you want to be in?”  Grinningly, the faculty moderator pressed the faculty panelists to answer.

I am ashamed to say that they did.

This is not the sort of problem which can be solved by cost-savings, team-teaching, or distance learning.  Such solutions are merely economic.  The problem is spiritual.

Though scientists have held out longer, belief in the coherence of universal reality is vanishing among them too.  The physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote in his book Across the Frontiers that “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”

This view isn’t a finding of science.  It’s merely a culmination of a line of thought which began with philosophers like Kant, who thought our minds can never really get at reality itself, but only at their own thoughts about reality.

Having abandoned the vision of universal truth on which the medieval university was built, what are modern universities organized around?  Stay tuned.

* “How the College Bubble will Pop,” Wall Street Journal, p. A13, 9 January 2014.