“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.
From Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” (emphasis added)
We might well have a happier and healthier society if educators asked consistently and relentlessly, not just on their own but in a kind of parliament at their own colleges: “What do the students really most need? Where do we want this education, this program, this course, this author, this class to lead the souls of the students? How might we best help them to become mature, informed, responsible adults, competent to the demands of family, community, citizenship, humanity?”
All too often these questions get lost, or they are never really asked in the first place. Most likely there is a quick flight to the assumption that because there will never be very solid consensus on the answers to these questions it is better not to raise them at all. Otherwise, expect unresolved disputes or unsatisfactory compromises. “Let the cobbler stick to his last.” But educators are more than cobblers. They are “formatores”—shapers of souls. They may deny this, but there is no way to escape it. Teachers are directors of the attentions and shapers of the attitudes and positions of their students, in how they are, in the manner and in the content of what they say, do, think, choose to communicate and to require of students. They are generally assumed to have the position of responsible agents of maturity in society. For the students, they are center-stage “role-examples” even if not worthy “role-models.”
Teachers may more often look to other questions: “How do we connect with the youth? What do students most want? How can we avoid seeming to be authoritarian or conservative proselytizers (of religion, culture, ethics, or politics)? How can we appear to be more progressive? Should we perhaps explicitly downgrade and overturn the old authorities as we construct some shiny new objects of interest?” Administrators themselves might have to be asking, “What do the faculty most want to do—or what are they willing to do—to serve their particular professions, their departmental needs, their own advancement? How do we raise our profile and ranking and objective record of professional accomplishment? How do we increase applications? How do we compete well?” These questions may be strategic, practical, and necessary for survival. But when it comes to the actual formation of students they fall short. If certain other questions have not been well addressed, “college” (and not just college) is being surreptitiously and perniciously undermined. It is becoming something that should not survive.
All students and faculty want a very large range of autonomy, and indeed, not without reason: the varieties and complexities of people and society demand some such free range. The other end of the spectrum is slavery, after all. But in an education that is worthy of the name, there are necessarily larger dynamics that also need to be engaged, larger enterprises that cannot be entirely subjected to individual likes and dislikes, particular arbitrary desires and momentary interests, or even ambitious personal career goals. Momentous social concerns make reading, writing and arithmetic necessary to maintain—despite an individual’s disinclinations to learn them and despite the cost to children’s greater freedom. Just so, there are higher-level equivalents to these basic operations. These are no less necessary, no less worthy of the sacrifice of some freedom. We sense within ourselves something like a social responsibility not to restrict our vision merely to the ebb and flow of our own concerns and dispositions or to the passing academic fads and styles of the times in which we happen to live.
Love of neighbor is ultimately what is at stake. That love requires us to have horizons larger than our personal life-concerns or spontaneous curiosities—even though these can have their own place and scope. Love of neighbor also implies taking care of one’s self and one’s charges in such a way that they become more nearly what they should be when at their best. That suggests the need to become a well-informed socially-connected being, learning from and contributing to others. Learning how to judge one’s “best” is, in fact, achieved over the course of an attentive life. It usually also involves learning about what to avoid, even about the worst that humanity can be. Wide-ranging reflection on the human condition under the right direction greatly accelerates this effort. When taught well, literature, movies, art, history, philosophy, theology, and the human sciences are invaluable avenues deep into this kind of reflection.
The Good Samaritan could not have done much for the man beaten by robbers and left on the roadside if he had not earlier acquired a means of transport and the money to have the injured man taken care of. But he also somehow had to acquire the moral disposition, the spiritual goods, that motivated him to judge well what he should do, how he should act on his spontaneous native feelings for a fellow human being in trouble. Many are now asking “Why go to college?” We should go to college precisely to attain the kind of attitude, judgment, and capacity symbolized in the parable. If colleges do not help us grow this way, and especially if they hinder such growth, the answer to the question about going to college takes an entirely different turn. There is an obligation—to oneself, one’s family, one’s society—to “grow one’s soul.” We feel this within us perhaps as instinctively as we feel that suicide is wrong. We have been given something of value, something that needs to be fed, that needs to grow.
Plants need the right cultivation, the right light and temperature and soil and care; their survivability is usually enhanced if there are similar viable plants nearby. Just so, the necessary factors for formative education depend upon arrangements made far beyond one’s own limited existence, and they do not always unfold in complete agreement with the lean of one’s autonomy. To shirk the task of growing one’s soul or the souls of a whole generation is to inject just so much more barbarism into the mix, taking us inevitably to diminishment, dysfunctionality, poverty, violence, and death. It is to run counter to the spirit of gratitude and appreciation that we should instinctively feel for the sacrifices that have been made for our greater growth. It is to deny ourselves the graced fulfillment that we might experience when we make our own honest sacrifices in return, seeds producing new life, new fruit.