The War of the Three Humanisms: Irving Babbitt and the Recovery of Classical Learning

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

ROBERT C. KOONS is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Paradoxes of Belief and Strategic Rationality, which won the Aarlt Prize.

Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) is not much
remembered today, except perhaps
through Sinclair Lewis’s snarky naming of
the eponymous villain of the satire of mid-American manners and mores, Babbitt,
after the Harvard professor whose anti-Progressive views Lewis denounced in his
Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In fact,
Irving Babbitt was far from the hidebound
and fearful philistine Arthur Babbitt in
Lewis’s novel. For forty years a professor of
French and comparative literature at Harvard,
Babbitt was the teacher and friend
of T. S. Eliot and, with Paul Elmer More,
the proponent of a cultural and intellectual
movement, the New Humanism, that
held center-stage in American intellectual
life in mid-century. His first book, with
the misleadingly modest title, Literature and
the American College,1 is one of the ten most
important and influential cultural critiques
written by an American in the last century,
comparable to Richard Weaver’s Ideas have
Consequences or Russell Kirk’s The Conservative
Mind.2 In addition, Babbitt’s book is
the most profound reflection on the nature
of higher learning written in the last one
hundred years, comparable to Newman’s
The Idea of a University,3 or, indeed, Quintillian’s
On the Education of the Orator or
Isocrates’ Antidosis.

Babbitt’s genius superimposed upon the
“blooming, buzzing and blurring confusion”
of cultural controversies in the
early twentieth century (Literature and the
American College was published in 1908)
a tripartite framework of thought that is
as illuminating today as it was one hundred
years ago. Babbitt begins in proper
Socratic fashion with a search for a definition,
in this case, of the words “humanism”
and “humanist.” He discovers three
distinct, and indeed profoundly antago-nistic, types of humanism. The first, scientific humanism, is typified by Francis
Bacon; the second, sentimental humanism,
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and the
third, classical humanism, by a succession
of thinkers, including Plato, Cicero, Castiglione,
Sidney, Goethe, Burke, Emerson,
Matthew Arnold, John Henry Newman,
and Babbitt himself. Babbitt recommends
reserving the word “humanism” for the
third tradition, preferring to use the word
“humanitarianism” to refer to the first two

The recognition of a conflict between
scientific utilitarianism and romantic and
aesthetic sentimentalism is a commonplace
of modern thought over the last two hundred
years, verging on a cliché (as in C.
P. Snow’s The Two Cultures). Babbitt discerns
beneath this superficial opposition a
deeper, unholy alliance between the two
forms of humanitarianism, in a perpetual
war against the very survival of humane
learning and the classical tradition. Babbitt
grasped a profoundly important fact,
one first adumbrated in Plato’s Republic: to
understand any cultural conflict, one must
look first to the design of the curriculum.
The most essential act of any culture or
civilization is the education of its own children.
Any profound change in the character
of a civilization will, therefore, express
itself most clearly in a reform of who
teaches what to whom and how. All other
social and political practices, whether the
scope of civil liberties, the worship of gods
or ideals, or the distribution of benefits and
burdens, are merely the epiphenomena of
the cultural ethos created by education.

The liberal arts curriculum of America’s
liberal arts colleges in the nineteenth
century was the fruit of twenty-five hundred
years of maturation and development,
beginning with the ancient schools
of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and the Stoics,
and continuing with the Romans Cicero,
Quintilian, Martianus Capella, Boethius,
and Cassiodorus, revived in the early Middle
Ages by Isidore of Seville and John
Scotus Eriugena, and institutionalized by
the anonymous founders of the European
medieval universities in the twelfth century.
Higher learning from late antiquity
until the twentieth century was organized
by the seven liberal arts as foundation—
the trivium of grammar, logic, and
rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic,
geometry, astronomy, and music (including
drama, poetry, and history, as well as
“music” in the modern sense)—with philosophy
and theology as the capstones. The
goal was essentially an ethical one: the formation
of the virtues of self-control and
prudence. The method was the reading
and emulation of a relatively fixed canon
of literary classics, works that “embody the
seasoned and matured experience of man,
extending over a considerable time.” “By
innumerable experiments, the world winnows
out the more essential from the less

The ideal constitution of the ancient
and medieval worlds, from Plato’s Laws
and Aristotle’s Politics through Cicero’s
Commonwealth, Polybius’s The Histories,
and St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica (1–2.
105. 1), was a “mixed” constitution, an
order that synthesized elements of both
democracy (equality and freedom) and
aristocracy (selectivity and restraint). The
classical model reflected this concern for a
balance, and early generations of Americans
eagerly supported the liberal arts college,
with its classical curriculum, as providing
essential ballast to the leveling and libertine
tendencies of a purely democratic
society. The college was to form the country’s
“natural aristocracy,” as Jefferson put
it. Babbitt notes, “The final test of democracy,
according to de Tocqueville, will be
its power to produce and encourage the
superior individual.”5

However, this classical tradition faced
increasing opposition throughout the
nineteenth century—from the utilitarian
followers of Bentham, the scientistic disciples
of Herbert Spencer, the pragmatic
pressures of American big business and
expansive national government, the quasiscientific specialization of the German
research university model, as well as the
nationalistic and individualistic romanticism
of Rousseau, Herder, Wordsworth,
and Whitman.

The Rise of Scientific
Humanitarianism: Sir Francis Bacon

Babbitt identifies the works of Sir Francis
Bacon (1561–1626) as the brow from
which springs the first great modern challenge
to the classical synthesis: scientific
humanitarianism. Bacon was not himself
a scientist of any significance, but he was
the first great promoter, organizer, and
propagandist for Science as a perpetual
institution. Bacon urged that the priorities
of scientific research be revised, replacing
the desire for a quasi-spiritual contemplation
of the essences and intrinsic purposes
of things with an unbridled quest for the
acquisition of technical power over nature.
Bacon urged that, through systematic
experimentation Nature be “put to the
rack” and forced to reveal her secrets. He
recommended that any thought about the
final ends or purposes of natural things
(teleology) be relegated to theology;
instead, men should impose their own
wills upon the raw material of nature by
better understanding the isolated propensities
of the elements and particles making
up material things. “Knowledge is power,”
Bacon declaims.

Bacon served as Lord Chancellor under
James I but was forced out of office and
convicted of bribery. Nonetheless, his ideas
remained influential, inspiring the creation
of the Royal Society. As Babbitt notes,
Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British
Whig politician of the mid-nineteenth
century, spends the first half of his biography
of Bacon on how mean a man Bacon
was and the second half on how glorious
the Baconian idea of scientific progress
is. Babbitt argues that the moral vacuum
within Bacon has exactly the same source
as his ideas: “By seeking to gain dominion
over things, he lost dominion over himself.”

Bacon’s zeal for a single-minded pursuit
of technical prowess initiated what Max
Weber called “the disenchantment of the
world,” including, ultimately, the disenchantment
of man himself. The habit of
analytic reductionism, so fruitful in physics
and chemistry, was quickly transferred
to the understanding of man and society,
resulting in “positive” or value-free
social sciences and arid philology. Once
teleology was kicked out of the domain
of human reason and restricted to that of
faith, the scientistic mind could no longer
distinguish between those healthy inclinations
proper to human nature and diseased
or disordered impulses. Reason became,
as David Hume put it, the “slave of the
passions,” a mere instrument for scratching
whatever itches. As a consequence,
the goal of education was reduced to the
acquisition of scientifically grounded technique,
with the ethical dimension left to
church, home, athletics, and other extracurricular
activities and pastimes, or (most
often) chance.

Babbitt accurately predicts the infection
of the humanities themselves by physics
envy. Scientism and over-specialization
have taken hold within the study of literature
and history:

Man himself and the product of his
spirit, language and literature, are
treated not as having a law of their
own, but as things entirely subject to
the same methods that have won for
science such triumphs over phenomenal

Babbitt insisted that comparative and
historical studies “must be subordinated to
humane standards” and “reinforced by a
sense of absolute values.” 8 In contrast, the
“scientific” historian subjects man to “the
law for things.”9 Ironically, the triumph
of “naturalism” in humane studies results
in the denaturing of man, the neglect of
the peculiar “law for man.” In place of the
pursuit of wisdom and the elucidation of
meaning, the modern “social scientist” uses
quantitative methods to analyze human
behavior, as though humans were no more
than sacks of chemicals endlessly seeking
thermodynamic equilibrium, and the
modern “humanist” studies texts as mere
secretions of the nervous system, products
of a Darwinian struggle for power.

Writing in 1908 with remarkable foresight,
before the ascendancy of pseudoscientific fanaticism, Babbitt argues that the
German educational model demonstrates
that it is “easier to be scientific or erudite or
enthusiastic than civilized.”10

Babbitt also notes that in Bacon we see
the appearance of a libido sciendi, an unbridled
lust for encyclopedic knowledge, in
place of the classical quest for sophia—wisdom—
conceived of as a finite, balanced,
integrated and harmonious whole, attainable
by individual human beings in each
generation. The universal and encyclopedic
knowledge sought by Bacon and his
disciples (like Diderot and d’Alembert),
in contrast, exceeds the capacities of any
one man or any single generation. It is
instead an infinite, unbounded aspiration
to be carried out by a vast and immortal
body of men, namely, Science (now the
name of a concrete social institution, and
no longer merely the abstract word for
knowledge). The educational counterpart of
this infinite process of limitless progress is
“science (Wissenschaft) as a vocation” (Max
Weber): the lifelong devotion of the specialist
to the contribution of some “original”
research to the ever-growing treasury
of knowledge, a treasury so vast as to
be far beyond the comprehension of any
individual. From this perspective, general
education is merely a preamble to the inevitable
specialization of the true intellectual,
designed merely to provide the would-be
specialist with those few tools of language,
logic, and mathematics that are of general

Sentimental Humanitarianism:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The second fountainhead of modernity
erupts from the works of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712–78), the Swiss philosopher
and essayist, whose influence simply cannot
be overestimated. Babbitt quotes Jules
Lemaître as reporting a feeling of “sacred
horror” at the extent of that influence.11
As the father of modern romanticism,
primitivism, sentimentalism, and aestheticism,
Rousseau gives, at first glance, the
impression of being the polar opposite of
the pragmatic, rational, and utilitarian
Bacon. Indeed, there are many instances of
conflict between the two tendencies, from
tensions between Victorian industrialists
and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts and Crafts
movement to conflict between Defense
Department technocrats and folk-singing
hippies over the Vietnam War. Nonetheless,
the superficial tensions between the
“two cultures” of scientific pragmatism
and romantic individualism merely disguise
their more fundamental affinities.
Both are united in their rejection of the
teleologically ordered cosmos of the classical
tradition, with its finite and universal
goal of happiness-through-self-restraint
(eudaemonia). In its place, the moderns substitute
the unbounded pursuit of infinite
progress, both through the attainment of
ever-greater technical power over nature
(including human nature), and through the
ever-novel exercise of fantasy and the idyllic
imagination and the ever-freer indulgence
of whim and spontaneous impulse.

Both Bacon and Rousseau were “men
of weak and in some respects contemptible
character.”12 Rousseau consigned each
of his five babies to the public crèche and
certain death, over the desperate protests
of his common-law wife. Babbitt insists
that we cannot ignore these biographical
facts when evaluating the philosophical
movements the two men launched, since
the immorality of the two founders is perfectly
reflected in the amoralism of their

Babbitt is writing near the end of the
term of Harvard President Charles William
Eliot (president from 1869–1909).
Eliot revolutionized higher education, not
only at Harvard, but also throughout the
country, by replacing the set curriculum
with the elective system. Babbitt quotes
Eliot, expressing the Rousseauist cult of

A well-instructed youth of eighteen
can select for himself a better course
of study than any college faculty,
or any wise man. . . . Every youth
of eighteen is an infinitely complex
organization, the duplicate of which
neither does nor ever will exist.13

Babbitt sardonically comments, “The
wisdom of all the ages is to be as naught
compared with the inclination of a sophomore.”

Eliot recognized the incongruity of
condemning Rousseau the man while
uncritically embracing Rousseau’s ideal of
untrammeled spontaneity: Rousseau was
an “execrable wretch,” yet at the same time
a glorious apostle of liberty. Eliot argued
that Rousseau’s contributions to philosophy
outweigh his personal flaws: “Verily
to have served liberty will cover a multitude
of sins.” Babbitt, in contrast, argued
that Rousseau’s personal immorality is the
key that unlocks the true meaning of his
philosophy: “Instead of the still small voice
that is heard in solitude and urges to selfdiscipline,
virtue is to become a form of
enthusiasm . . .”14

Babbitt calls Rousseau a “moral impressionist,”
one who, like the ancient sophists,
sought to rest virtue “on the shifting
quicksands of sensibility.”15 As Babbitt
correctly noted, Rousseau’s philosophy
developed from the moral sentimentalism
of Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, which was
carried forward by David Hume and Adam
Smith.16 In the classical tradition founded
by Socrates and dominant in the Western
world until the eighteenth century, ethical
wisdom is a form of knowledge—nota
bene the presence of the root “science” in
the word “conscience”—grounded in our
exercise of reasoning intelligence. Through
the proper understanding of our natural
end or telos (the “law for man”), the practical
intellect is able to judge and weigh the
various and conflicting desires, feelings, and
inclinations of the human heart, bringing
them into a rational order, subordinated to
the cosmic order reflected in human nature.

In contrast, the moral sentimentalist sees
moral principle as merely the superstitious
reification of human feeling, especially the
feeling of pity or compassion. Ethics thus
lies forever beyond the bounds of rationality
and scientific understanding: a realm of
“values” and not of “facts.” As Babbitt puts
it, “Rousseau confounds the law for man
with his own temperament.”17

The moral sentimentalists, including
Hume, maintained the hope that the hardwiring
of human emotion was sufficiently
universal across the species that the fiction
of a kind of “quasi-truth” in ethics
could be sustained, mimicking the conclusions
of classical moral wisdom. Rousseau
saw that old wineskins cannot contain the
new wine: morality must be reconstructed
along new, sentimentalist lines, resulting
in a “transvaluation of all values” (to use
Nietzsche’s phrase). As Babbitt noted, the
ethics of restraint, including the restraints
embodied in the classical virtues of justice,
wisdom, courage and temperance, is
to be replaced by an ethics of enthusiasm,
in which careful attention to one’s finite
duties to one’s neighbor and loyalty to
one’s concrete communities is supplanted
by a boundless philanthropy. Babbitt correctly
foresaw that such amoral humanitarianism
would be catastrophic. There is
a direct and unmistakable line from Rousseau’s
love for humanity to the ovens of
Auschwitz, the work camps of the Gulag,
and the killing fields of Cambodia, all
of which were justified by an irrational
enthusiasm for a fantasized future.

Babbitt brilliantly diagnoses the spiritual
roots of modern amoralism: the
Rousseauist philosophy reflects a spiritual
indolence. In his letters, Rousseau himself
admitted an inveterate laziness. Moral
sentimentalism is the product of a kind of
spiritual and intellectual sloth, the deliberate
avoidance of the hard work of shaping
one’s character and acquiring true wisdom
and sound judgment. This spiritual acedia
is compatible with a frenetic activity: “A
man may be a prodigy of energy and yet
spiritually indolent.”18

Eliot’s elective system is the perfect curricular
embodiment of Rousseau’s philosophy,
in which the student is “compelled to
be free” by being denied the opportunity
to undertake a coherent and well-ordered
course of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseau
is essentially the resurrection of the
ancient Greek Sophists. In fact, Plato, in
his Republic, describes Rousseau prophetically
in his depiction of the democratic
personality. A perfect equality rules the
democratic soul: each impulse and whim
claims equal right to the individual’s time
and energy.

Translated into education, the result
is what Babbitt calls “the democracy of
studies.” The modern university is a mere
cafeteria of courses, with no structure or
principle of selection. Plato also predicted
this outcome in his Laws (819A): “encyclopedic
smattering and miscellaneous experiment.”
As Babbitt observes, a bachelor’s
degree now “means merely that a man
has expended a certain number of units
of intellectual energy on a list of elective
studies that may range from boiler-making
to Bulgarian . . . a question of intellectual
volts and amperes and ohms.”19

Although the elective system promised
greater autonomy for the student, in
practice it has become the worst kind of
tyranny. If there are no courses that students
are required to take, then there are
no courses that professors are required to
teach. It is individual professors, not individual
students, who decide what courses
shall be offered. Both training and selfinterest
drive professors to offer narrow
courses that transmit to a captive audience
the results of the professors’ own specialized
research. In place of the spacious
vision offered by the Grand Canyon of the
classical curriculum, the elective system
drops students down a succession of scattered
oil wells.

The academic “major,” outside of engineering
and the hard sciences, deprives
students of the opportunity of taking even
two-or three-course sequences. Instead,
students are offered a single, superficial
“introduction” to the subject, followed by
a random miscellany of electives, taught
by academic drones who have spent their
careers learning more and more about less
and less. The whole is inevitably much less
than the sum of its parts.

The Common Ground of Modernity

The examination of the new college curriculum
brings to light the underlying
commonality between scientific and sentimental
humanitarianism. In practice, both
forward a course of studies that privileges
the quantity of information absorbed over
any selection based on natural quality.
Both conceive of the college as an engine
of social progress, ignoring the vitally
important task of the “assimilation and
perpetuation of culture.”20 Both deny the
existence of a natural end or telos of man,
the conception of a finite, bounded, and
balanced fulfillment of human nature,
rationally intelligible and fixed. Both
reduce the scope of knowledge to what
can be secured by the methods of physical
science, with the capacity to control and
manipulate as its acid test. Both hold the
wisdom of the past in contempt, replacing
piety toward our forebears with a chronological
narcissism and a naive faith in the
fusion of scientific technique with the sentiment
of humanity.

Humanitarians conceive of higher education
as encompassing just two tasks: the
production and distribution of knowledge.
They ignore the need for rational
reflection. Babbitt, echoing Montaigne,
insisted that the ambition of teachers must
be not “simply to distribute knowledge,
not ‘to lodge it with [their students]’, but
to ‘marry it to them and make it part of
their very minds and souls.'”21 This process
of reflection and assimilation requires
three things that are denied to today’s students:
teachers who have been selected on
the basis of their breadth of learning and
maturity of thought, profound texts that
have stood the test of time, and the leisure
of reflecting together on the same subjects
over a period of years, not weeks. “The
fact that men once read the same books at
college was no slight bond of fellowship.”22
According to Babbitt, we run the risk of
“having our minds buried beneath a deadweight
of information which we have no
inner energy, no power of reflection, to
put to our own uses and convert into vital

By hollowing out the humanities,
depriving them of their serious moral purpose,
the humanitarian philosophy has
driven students from liberal learning into an
increasingly narrow credential-mongering
and vocational orientation. The central disciplines
of philosophy, history, and modern
and classical languages once attracted
the majority of college students—today,
all of the humanities together make up
less than a fifth. Who can blame students
for pursuing the art of hotel management,
when the so-called “humanities” offer no
alternative more ennobling? The Baconian
philosopher Herbert Spencer held art and
literature to be mere “play” and logically
concluded that they should occupy only
the “leisure part of education.”

One thing that Babbitt did not anticipate
was the rise of political correctness
in the academy, although his analysis
provided the grounds for forecasting the
inevitability of that rise. Nature abhors a
vacuum: the emptying from the curriculum
of the high moral purpose of character
formation and the acquisition of wisdom
created a chasm into which a thousand
ideological demons have swarmed. The
credo of knowledge for knowledge’s sake
no longer inspires when the knowledge to
be gained is circumscribed to such minutiae
as the history of a single market cross.

The crises and disasters of the last century
have deprived the myth of inevitable
Progress of its credibility. The selfless
pursuit of humanitarian aims can persist
only if that myth is revived through allegiance
to political ideology that promises
millenarian transformation. A new kind
of Gnosticism has captured higher edu
cation in the West, as Eric Voegelin predicted
it would.24 Gnostics “immanentize
the eschaton,” transferring the hoped-for
infinite value of salvation from the next
world to the future of this one. The Judeo-Christian synthesis of late antiquity and the
Middle Ages reconciled our longing for an
infinite good with our acceptance of the
finite conditions of human life by conceiving
of the finite good of human virtue and
wisdom in this life as a necessary steppingstone
to the beatific vision of God in the
next. Modern political ideologues from
the Jacobins to the Maoists seek to offer a
shortcut to salvation, eliminating the need
for the straight and narrow path of selfcultivation.
Instead, scientific technique
and philanthropic enthusiasm, synthesized
by a seductively comprehensive political
doctrine, promise to distribute an infinite
good to everyone in the near future, if
only we will swear our allegiance to the
harbingers of revolution.

Willing participation in such political
programs has become the most stringent
and essential of all academic credentials.
The one place in the world in which Marxism
still thrives is within the literature
and social science departments of American
colleges and universities. The grip
of political correctness upon these fields,
however, extends throughout the system,
from elite universities to community colleges,
with only engineering, economics,
philosophy, and a few other stragglers
holding out. These pedantic revolutionaries
are doomed to failure: no parsing of
syntax or “reimagining” of popular literature
and no critique of television sitcoms
will ever overthrow the established order.
However, the tactical folly of these Ches
and Fidels of the classroom is little comfort
when we take into account the huge
costs they exact in the form of lost opportunities.
Students who spend their college
years being drilled in the catechisms of the
Left lose forever the chance to enrich their
imaginations, inform their consciences,
and stimulate their powers of reflection
through reading together the great works
of our tradition under the tutelage of the
heirs of that very tradition. A university
can encompass the study of many cultures,
but it can perpetuate only one. The devotees
of political correctness ensure that it
perpetuates nothing at all.

Babbitt did note the tendency of academic
ideologues to set up “an imaginary
dualism in society to take the place of the
real dualism in the breast of the individual.”
25 Babbitt anticipated Solzhenitsyn’s
famous aphorism: “the line between good
and evil runs through the human heart”
(offered, coincidentally, at a Harvard commencement
in 1978).26 Only when the
academy correctly locates the dichotomy
of good and evil within the individual
can it return to its historic role of assisting
the good man in his perpetual struggle
for mastery over himself and his wayward
impulses. As Babbitt says, “By right
selection even more than by the fullness
of knowledge and sympathy, man proves
his superiority of essence, and shows that
he is something more than a mere force
of nature.”27 Information, sympathy, ideology—
all of these are at best neutral parties,
at worst goads and inducements to
evil. Wisdom consists in the ability to distinguish
and weigh, selecting the best and
rejecting the worst. Such wisdom requires
acquaintance with a fixed scale of value,
anchored in the eternal verities of human
nature and found within the intellectual
patrimony of our civilization.

It is not enough simply to banish
“political correctness” and all thought
of a higher purpose, as Stanley Fish has
recently recommended.28 Fish is right to
see transformative ideology in the classroom
as a colossal fraud, at best a waste of
time and energy and a distraction from the
real business of learning. However, so long
as higher education is cut off from its classical
roots, such illusory substitutes for true
meaning and purpose will persist. The
vast machinery of the academic industry
depends for its survival on the successful
recruitment of the narrow specialists of
tomorrow, which in turn requires a more
inspiring vision than simply the endless
accumulation of meaningless information,
or the construction of new interpretations
of familiar texts, whose “truth” consists
in no more than their being grudgingly
accepted by one’s fellow drones. (Fish
famously wise-cracked that, in academia,
“the ‘truth’ is whatever my peers will let
me get away with.”)

Recovering the Classical Tradition

“My dear friend, clear your
mind of cant.”
Dr. Johnson to Boswell

Dr. Johnson’s advice is indispensable. Any
meaningful reform of higher education
demands that we clear away the cant of
scientism and philanthropy. The modern
research university is the last holdout of
Stalinist central planning, industrial-age
mass production, and progressivist fantasy.
If Western civilization is to survive, the
Great Conversation initiated by Socrates
and his friends must find a new watercourse:
the university is clogged and polluted
beyond all hope of redemption.

The university is on life support, dependent
on only two mechanisms: massive
governmental subsidies (loans, scholarships,
research grants, and direct appropriations),
and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Higher education
represents the biggest waste of public
resources since the Great Pyramids.
The value of university research and of
university degrees is fatuously exaggerated
by ignoring the simple distinction
between causation and correlation. Both
highly educated regions and highly educated
individuals are unusually productive,
but there is every reason to think that
education and productivity spring from
common causes (discipline, intelligence,
and curiosity), rather than that education
raises productivity. The Griggs case forces
businesses to use college degrees as proxies
for intelligence, since they are effectively
barred from using the much cheaper and
more reliable alternative of direct testing
of prospective employees, unless they can
meet the onerous burden of showing the
tests used (which have disparate impact on
various sub-populations) to be a matter of
“business necessity.”

The upward spiral of costs and the
downward spiral of perceived quality of
higher education are rapidly pushing the
system to a critical point, at which large
numbers of highly intelligent young people
will swell the ranks of the research
university “refuseniks.” Once the brightest
young people opt out of the academic circus,
selectivity rates at the top will begin
to fall, causing the colleges to lose prestige
and their degrees to lose perceived value,
resulting in still more defections, until the
system collapses.

Marvelous lectures and texts are now
available for free online as an academic
open source. Social media and teleconferencing
make possible the spontaneous
formation of international communities of
scholarly amateurs (in the original sense of
the word), in and through which the heritage
of the West can find its outlet. All that
is needed is for the remaining scholars of
the true republic of letters, those faithful
thousands who have not “bowed the knee
to Baal,” to join together to provide some
formal quality control to the process.

The corporate and financial crises of
the past decade, and the looming political
crisis of today, have revived in the public’s
mind the ancient truth that character
matters. A successful revival of the classical
tradition can only take place when
the connection between liberal learning
and virtue can also be brought back into
view. This, in turn, requires the rejection
of the fact/value distinction and the entire
habit of scientific reductionism that has so
dominated American life in the latter part
of the twentieth century. It requires, too,
the outgrowing of the Rousseauist cult of
spontaneity and enthusiasm. Such a revival
of the tradition is possible; in fact, America
has been the locus of several such revivals
in the past. The reconstitution of civilization
will begin with Burke’s little platoons,
growing organically into the space left by
an increasingly sterile modernity. There
is no substitute for patient, persistent toil,
sustained by fellowship and by hope.


  1. Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College
    (Washington, DC: National Humanities Institute,

  2. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
    (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948);
    Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot
    (Chicago, IL: H. Regnery, 1960).

  3. John Henry Newman,
    The Idea of a University (Garden City, NY: Image
    Books, 1959).

  4. Babbitt, Literature and the American College,

  5. Ibid., 127.
  6. Ibid., 92.
  7. Ibid., 86.
  8. Ibid.,

  9. Ibid., 159.
  10. Ibid., 144.
  11. Ibid., 90.
  12. Ibid., 91.
  13. Ibid., 96.
  14. Ibid., 97.
  15. Ibid., 98.
  16. Ibid., 103, n.

  17. Ibid., 100.
  18. Ibid., 101.
  19. Ibid., 123.
  20. Ibid.,

  21. Ibid., 125.
  22. Ibid., 122.
  23. Ibid., 157–58.
  24. Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington,
    DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).

  25. Babbitt, Literature and the American College, 107.
  26. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, ed.
    Ronald Berman (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public
    Policy Foundation, 1980).

  27. Babbitt, Literature and the
    American College, 100–101.

  28. Stanley Fish, Save the
    World on Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University
    Press, 2008).

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